CELCIS marks 40 years of ESL excellence

Group picture of students and staff at CELCIS picnicForty years of teaching English to international students has earned CELCIS—Western Michigan University’s English as a Second Language program—international renown and thousands of alumni around the world.

Founded in 1975, the Center for English Language and Culture for International Students (CELCIS) is one of just six programs worldwide to have achieved a second reaccreditation by the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation. CEA reaccredited CELCIS for a 10-year period through 2025 following a comprehensive self-study and site visit in April 2015.

The Commission on English Language Accreditation logo“This accreditation sets our program apart from other language schools and inspires the excellence we are dedicated to maintaining," says Tom Marks, CELCIS director. “CEA is the accepted accrediting body for intensive English programs—not only in the United States but all over the world. It is the gold standard recognized by students, faculty, international partners, recruiters and agents. CELCIS is one of the few programs in the U.S. to receive accreditation from CEA three times.”

Thousands of people have studied at CELCIS since it opened its doors to the first class in fall 1975. The program attracts students from around the world; currently, the top five countries of origin are Saudi Arabia, China, Oman, Japan, and Papua. Fall 2016 enrollment is anticipated to be more than 100 students.

CELCIS offers several types of programs: academic language instruction and cultural orientation in a year-round intensive English program; English as a Second Language bridge courses offered through WMU's College of Arts and Sciences; short-term programs with a business or education focus; and training and consultation programs for international teaching assistants and faculty through WMU's Graduate College and Office of the Provost.Dan Hendrickson and Tom Marks at CELCIS 40th anniversary party

Courses are taught by 12 full-time and more than 10 part-time faculty members. “Our faculty members hold master’s degrees in ESL instruction and have accumulated significant experience in the field,” Marks said. “Most of our teachers have overseas teaching experience and all of us are interested in the broad range of cultures students bring to our program. What’s special about our teachers is that they strive to develop relationships with each student. They understand students’ language needs and can tailor assignments and study skills to help them succeed. Outside of the classroom, our teachers hold office hours so students can drop in with questions, and they volunteer at CELCIS study tables and in our language lab to help students improve their language skills.”

Student services and guidance are provided in the CELCIS office by five full-time office staff, including a CELCIS-only immigration officer. The program helps students increase their understanding of U.S. culture by offering each semester a broad range of experiential day trips and activities, as well as recreational and volunteer opportunities. In addition, a unique program for language practice brings CELCIS and WMU students together in conversation circles to practice conversational English.

“CELCIS has an activities coordinator who plans extracurricular programs for our students,” said Christie Gates, the program’s assistant director. “These cultural/social/recreational events help international students make friends and engage with native English speakers. Our students also participate in volunteer activities that benefit the local community, such as serving food to people who are homeless or playing games with residents in retirement communities. All of these activities help students practice their speaking and listening skills and give them the opportunity to share their home cultures.” Participating in these activities round out the academic side of the program and help students gain the global competencies they need to enter a diverse workforce anywhere in the world.

Diverse student population and technology key to program success

Like most academic programs offered to international students in the United States, global events can have a major impact on the CELCIS program’s ability to attract a diverse student population. Marks said CELCIS faculty and staff are continually looking at how they can improve the recruitment process. “We are cultivating new relationships with University partners and considering how we can improve communication with the prospects we meet on overseas recruiting trips,” he said. “We are investing more resources into our web and social media presence. And, we are focusing on reaching out to people from countries underrepresented in our student population where we know there is demand for ESL instruction, such as Vietnam, Colombia and Mexico.”

Advancing the program’s educational technology and making other programmatic changes to improve the student experience are also in the works. “CELCIS faculty continually review new software available to enhance classroom instruction and make purchase recommendations,” Marks said. “Additionally, we are looking into offering online ESL classes and an accelerated program in summer that would allow students to take seven-week semesters. We already offer a very good program, but we are always looking for ways to make it better and more effective for our students.”

How an ESL pioneer initiated a program at WMU

Led in the mid-1970s by a pioneer in the English as a Second Language field, a group of young, idealistic instructors sought to revolutionize the way ESL was taught at WMU and beyond. Their leader was Dr. Daniel Hendriksen, a professor of linguistics in WMU’s College of Arts and Sciences from 1975-81, who had graduated from the University of Michigan in the early 1960s with a doctorate in applied linguistics. U of M was one of the first universities to have an intensive English program, and its graduates are some of the most famous people in the field. Interested in founding a similar program at WMU, Hendriksen tapped some of his department’s bright, young talent to establish the Career English Program at Western in fall 1975.

“That first year we had no books, we used ditto sheets for class materials, and my wife was making double my salary, but it was so exciting to be developing and teaching in the program,” said Robert “Bob” Dlouhy, CELCIS master faculty specialist and a 41-year, founding member of the program. “Through Dan we have a historical linkage to our discipline and other people teaching in the program at the time. Dan is a ‘son’ of the founders of ESL teaching at U of M. My longtime colleagues Pam Keesler, Darryl Salisbury and I are sons and daughters of that first generation—direct descendants of one of the United States’ first intensive English programs.” 

Dlouhy was one of the bright young teachers Hendriksen recruited to help him develop and launch WMU’s program. Pam Keesler, a current part-time CELCIS instructor, and Darryl Salisbury, who retired as a WMU master faculty specialist of English and culture in 2014, were also members of the founding cohort. “We wanted to design a progressive and unique program that was tailored to help non-English speaking students gain English proficiency so they could successfully pursue their career interests,” Dlouhy said.

Breaking from tradition

The predominant ESL teaching method in practice after WWII was the audio lingual method, which revolved around the idea that studying language is learning habits and memorizing conversations.
Dlouhy recalls studying by that method— 
Spanish in high school and Swahili while serving in the Peace Corp—which he said made the learning the languages difficult to expand upon and retain.

Bob Dlouhy carving a pumpkin

“That was the language theory Dan was exposed to in the 1950s and 1960s and he realized there were some shortcomings,” Dlouhy said. “Dan thought people needed to learn language from using it through real situations and interactions. We wanted to prepare students for their careers by developing a curriculum that stressed practical application of English in a real context—your career. Dan and his peers in the field cultivated the seeds for modern language teaching today—the Communicative Language Teaching approach. It became the prominent method around the world in the 1990s.”

With the support of Dr. Cornelius Lowe, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the time, and administrative support provided by WMU’s continuing education office, the Career English Program opened its doors to about 70 students in fall 1975 under the leadership of Director Dan Hendriksen. Dlouhy recalls a “surprisingly diverse population” of students in his classes and in the new program’s office in Friedmann Hall.

By the mid-1980s, many ESL providers began to develop programs for special purposes, such as offering short-term programs to help business people gain English language skills for use at work in their home countries and abroad. “At first, the CELCIS curriculum was focused on preparing for a career,” Dlouhy recalled, “but we realized early on that it would be beneficial to adjust the curriculum towards using English for academic purposes.”

CELCIS instructors continued to play a major role in the development of the program, which had become a self-supporting unit of the University. “The CELCIS faculty was very proactive,” Dlouhy said.

Into the next millennium

In 1998, the program was brought into the newly founded Diether H. Haenicke Institute for Global Education, which was established as the University’s international hub to promote and support efforts towards globalization and internationalization of the academic environment. The institute is comprised of several units: CELCIS, Immigration Services, International Admissions and Services, and Study Abroad, as well as four research institutes/centers. Institute staff work closely with the International Education Council of the WMU Faculty Senate, as well as with international education committees and projects within and across colleges.

CELCIS Faculty: Bob Dlouhy, Joel Boyd, Ila Baker, Tom Marks, Mary Lu Light, Darryl SalisburyThis positioning within the Diether H. Haenicke Institute for Global Education has been a good fit for CELCIS. It has offered the administrative support needed to grow and has opened up opportunities for greater collaboration with other units on campus.  For example, CELCIS has worked closely with the Graduate College and the Haworth College of Business to develop new courses to meet the needs of graduate-level international students.  The CELCIS faculty’s expertise in the ESL field has established CELCIS as a valuable resource for both students and the university as whole.  

Unlike other ESL programs, Joel Boyd, a CELCIS master faculty specialist since 1996, noted that the history of CELCIS has always included an emphasis on offering classes that are taught by full-time faculty—a desirable attribute which assures students access to professional classroom instructors who are experienced and invested in the ESL field. However, political, economic and other global events over the last 20 years have made it challenging to attract enrollment, many of which have been witnessed by Boyd.

“CELCIS lost a lot of students with the economic downturn in the late 1990’s,” said Boyd, a master faculty specialist. “The attacks of 9/11 hurt us again, and I noticed a change afterward. Whereas we used to have more students from East Asia, the government of Saudi Arabia began to offer scholarships in 2005 for their students to come to the U.S. to study, and we began to get more students from there. We have also had large groups of government-sponsored students from the Dominican Republic and Brazil who prepared for University study, and short-term, purpose-specific programs for large groups from Japan, Korea, and other locations. The curriculum has changed to meet demand and to earn CEA accreditation and two renewals.” This is another demonstration of the student-centered focus of the CELCIS program, as the CELCIS curriculum has undergone several changes to ensure that it is relevant and useful to the needs of the current population of ESL learners. "We also added two lower levels of instruction to help beginning learners.”

CELCIS studen in classroom

Tom Marks began teaching in CELCIS in 1996 and was named director of the program in 2013. Like Boyd, he has witnessed big enrollment changes, and he expects enrollment to continue to diversify as new markets open up.  

“We may see more students from other countries in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and Asia,” said Marks, who began teaching ESL to children from South America in the mid-1980s for Literacy Volunteers of America. “In our first 40 years, the program has steadily improved in quality. We still have CELCIS teachers who were here when the program started in 1975, and we often have former students visit us and some send their children to the program. People like studying in Kalamazoo and they don’t want to leave. We are committed to helping students learn what they need to succeed in the University and to providing excellent service. We take care of our students. The CELCIS office is a place where students are always welcome to have a cup of coffee and to sit down and chat. We want our students to feel comfortable and at home—like family.”

CELCIS welcomes queries from prospective students, and international institutions seeking ESL instruction, including requests for customized short- and long-term programs. For comprehensive program and contact information, visit the CELCIS website.  

By Margaret Von Steinen