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College of Education > News and Publications > 2017: 10-12 news > Unique program helps Penn State students become citizens of the world as they teach English in Ecuador

Unique program helps Penn State students become citizens of the world as they teach English in Ecuador

Associate Professor Elizabeth Smolcic heads up the College’s Teaching English as a Second Language program, complete with a five-week immersion trip to Ecuador.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Adison Godfrey never knew she wanted to be a teacher. In fact, she really wasn’t sure what she wanted to pursue after college. All she knew was that she liked to travel and meet people from different cultures. It wasn’t until her internship coordinator suggested teaching English as a second language that she considered a career in education.

Sarah Zablotney Ecuador
Penn State student Sarah Zablotney poses with her young students while completing the Ecuador Immersion program with the College of Education.

“I had tutoring experience but I didn’t have experience being in a classroom as the head teacher and I didn’t know how the two would compare,” Godfrey said. “Since I was an English and Spanish major and I wanted to travel abroad again, Elizabeth Jenkins in the College of the Liberal Arts suggested the ESL (English as a Second Language) program in the College of Education because I would be able to travel but also come out of it with something concrete.” 

A 15-credit, state-approved certificate program, the Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) program housed in the College of Education and offered in partnership with the College of the Liberal Arts, attracts students from all majors across the University as well as current teachers throughout the state. Upon completion of the program, teachers can add the Teaching ESL Program Specialist endorsement to their professional teaching credential.

“As part of the program, we traveled to Ecuador for five weeks and we had a full language and culture immersion experience,” said Godfrey, who completed the program in 2015. 

As part of the immersion component of the program, Penn State students co-teach the English language to elementary, high school and college-aged students at a local Ecuadorian university. They also live with Spanish-speaking host families for the duration of the five-week program. 

“We took our pedagogy classes for the TESL program in the morning and then we would teach Ecuadorians in the evenings at a local university,” she said. “It was very intense but also an amazing experience.”

Penn State has offered a TESL certificate program for many years but it wasn’t until Elizabeth Smolcic joined the faculty in 2009 that an immersion experience was added.

“I started the program 13 years ago and brought it with me when I came to Penn State,” said Smolcic, an associate professor of education. “When I joined the faculty and developed this program for the Penn State curriculum, we were able to offer students and current teachers an alternative pathway that offers a direct experience in another linguistic and cultural environment that provides the critical hands-on teaching skills necessary to work with emergent bilingual English learners.”

“This program revolutionized my life’s goals, my professional potential and my cultural awareness. The five weeks I lived in Ecuador were truly the five best weeks of my life. I was enriched academically, socially, professionally, environmentally, personally and spiritually. I cannot think of many programs that can do all of that in one.”

— Rachel Shriver, College of Education student

It is common for current teachers to enroll in the program and also travel to Ecuador, she said. With the growing number of Spanish-speaking individuals moving to Pennsylvania, schools are in need of teachers who are certified ESL instructors and give preference to those who have hands-on experience. 

“Because there are current teacher shortages across the country for ESL and bilingual teachers, we attract many educators who want to add ESL to their current certification,” Smolcic said.

To accommodate the busy schedules of students and teachers, courses have an online component and resident instruction is offered on the weekends so that educators, regardless of where they live, can participate. Three credits are offered every spring semester and 12 credits, which includes the immersion experience, take place in the summer. 

“It’s a great learning experience for both pre- and in-service teachers,” Smolcic said. “When teachers come to this program, they are in a group with younger students who may have different perspectives and are learning different things that may not have been part of their teacher education curriculum. And obviously, classroom teachers have a wealth of hands-on knowledge and experience that pre-service teachers learn from and that we build on.”

The program consists of five courses that are offered collaboratively through the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education and the Department of Applied Linguistics in the College of the Liberal Arts. The courses span various aspects of language, culture and pedagogy related to teaching emergent bilingual learners in PreK-12 contexts. One course introduces students to the structures and systems of the English language and “explores the idea that teaching something automatic to you is really difficult to do,” Smolcic said. 

Two other courses — Teaching English as a Second Language and Foundations of Language in Second Language Teaching — look at how others learn a new language and instructional strategies to teach an additional language. Both cover content related to how the brain processes learning a language as well as how language is central to social and personal identities. The remaining credits are fulfilled with a course that discusses issues critical to interacting with English learners in U.S. public schools and a course exploring the intersections of teaching and culture. The central component to all the courses is the practical field experience that takes place in Ecuador. While there, Penn State students also learn either Spanish or Kichwa, the indigenous language of Ecuador. 

“The cultural aspect is huge in this program, as it is in any ESL program,” Smolcic said. “Every culture is distinct and ways of classroom interaction that are implicit in U.S. schools are not necessarily understood in other cultures, and that’s important when you are interacting with learners from cultures that are not English-speaking.”

Matt Crager Ecuador
Matt Crager gets a local cuisine cooking lesson from his host family in Ecuador.

Immersion in Ecuador

“Going to Ecuador was an amazing experience,” said recent graduate Matt Crager. “It was great to take everything we learned in our classes and be able to experience it in a real-world ESL classroom.”

As a communications arts and sciences major, Crager did not have a background in education or any type of teaching experience even though he said he was always interested in education.

“I always wanted to teach and I always thought education might be something I wanted to do but I never took any steps to actually do it,” he said. But then he applied to the TESL program.

“The entire program provided a really holistic view of everything that goes into teaching a second language. I never realized there was so much that goes into it,” Crager said. “What I thought I would learn, is not what I learned.”

He said he expected a traditional program where he sat in a classroom and was told how to teach. 

“But instead, it’s more like here’s all these things that influence how you teach a language, from culture to literacy and development,” he said. “Not just telling you exactly how to teach but telling you the types of problems you’ll face and equipping you with the thinking skills to be able to solve them.”

Godfrey agrees.

“I learned so much from the program, more than I expected, especially from the immersion experience,” she said. “For me, the most impactful part was how it broadened my world view.”

Living and teaching in Ecuador was unlike anything she’s ever experienced, Godfrey said. “After having the Ecuador experience, it really solidified for me that I wanted to be a teacher, and go back to Ecuador and work with students from a different country again.”

After graduating from Penn State, Godfrey got her wish when she returned to Ecuador in October 2016, this time as a Fulbright Fellow, and worked as an ESL teacher at a technical university. She also volunteered at a local orphanage and taught English to two children with cerebral palsy who were in the process of being adopted by families in the United States.

Godfrey returned to the United States in July and in August she officially joined the College of Education as a graduate student. She currently is studying secondary English education and will complete the rigorous Professional Development School program. But she hopes to expand her education even further.

“I found out about the College’s dual master’s degree program in curriculum and instruction and comparative and international education,” she said. “From the Ecuador program, I’ve developed this global mindset and this desire to work globally, so I’m hoping to pursue that dual degree and eventually teach abroad.”

Crager also said his time in Ecuador opened his eyes to the field of education and has influenced him to pursue additional teaching opportunities. He also applied and was accepted to the Fulbright Fellowship Program. In February 2018, he will travel to Brazil to work with college students who are preparing to be English teachers.

“Going to Ecuador was a great, completely immersive experience — living with a host family and being thrown into a classroom and teaching and taking classes, all of it,” he said. “I have more confidence in myself just to be able to handle that change and pressure. But I also have the teaching skills to go into my Fulbright confidently. Before Ecuador, I wouldn’t have any idea what I was doing.”

While he hasn’t decided what his post-Fulbright plans entail, he knows the general direction.

“I want to go to graduate school and everything I’m doing now is leading to either educational psychology or being a classroom teacher,” he said. “No matter what I do, I want to be teaching in some capacity in the future. I won’t be happy if I’m not doing that.”

Recent College of Education graduate and TESL alumna Christina Cabezas also was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship and will work as an ESL educator in Brazil. John Quinslik, a senior studying secondary math education, recently applied to the Fulbright Fellowship program and is hoping to receive an offer to teach in Taiwan. If awarded, he will be notified in mid-2018. 

This year on #GivingTuesday, the College of Education is raising money to fully fund at least one student to participate in the Teaching ESL Certificate Program with an Ecuador Immersion Experience. It is a wonderful opportunity for students to travel abroad, learn a new language while also teaching English, and gain knowledge and experience about life in Ecuador. To learn more, click here.

Funding the way

Because it can be difficult for education majors to add courses to their regular semester schedules, which are fairly prescribed and already full, the TESL program offers 12 of the 15 credits during the summer session. This requires students to pay summer session tuition as well as the study abroad fee, in addition to their annual Penn State tuition.

“Financial resources are a huge barrier to students who are interested in having a global experience,” Smolcic said. “I have students come to me saying that they really want to do the program but they are afraid that they just can’t afford it.”

In the summer of 2017, costs to complete the program, including tuition, transportation and other expenses, exceeded $10,000.

“Each year, our program loses students who have applied and been accepted, but do not have the financial resources to participate,” Smolcic said, adding that Dean David H. Monk has allocated some money to help students alleviate the financial burden. In 2016, he approved four $2,000 scholarships for students with financial need. 

Rachel Shriver, a junior studying secondary English education, knows first-hand how finances can interfere with students’ academic plans to study abroad.

“I know for people like me whose parents do not pay for their higher education, the program is almost entirely out of the question,” she said, adding that without the scholarship she received from the College she never would have been able to participate.

“The scholarship I received helped, but did not cover all or even half of my expenses for the program,” she said. “However, the amount I was given was enough to bring the cost in a range that wasn’t overwhelming. This was significant because I had come to terms with the idea that I would have to pass up the opportunity.”

Shriver said she calculated how much she needed to work during the spring semester in order to feel confident in taking out a loan to cover the remaining costs and also to determine how much she needed to save for summer. After all, she would not be receiving any income during her five weeks in Ecuador, an issue many students face.

“Traveling abroad in the summer can be very difficult for students because it may prevent them from holding a summer job and thus, lose the income that comes with that,” Smolcic said. It is those hardworking students, she said, that can have the greatest impact on children and young people. “So, it is incumbent upon us to allow those students who desire global learning or experiences with cultural or linguistic differences to be able to take part in these types of opportunities.”

Rachel Shriver Ecuador
Junior Rachel Shriver (right) learns how to basket weave from a local woman in Saraguro, Ecuador.
The future of education

For Shriver, it was not just an opportunity to travel abroad that sparked her interest in the program. It was something that hit much closer to home.

“Thirty-three percent of my hometown consists of ESL students,” she said. “After taking CI 280 (Introduction to teaching English language learners), I was exposed to a lot of the injustices emergent multilingual students face in this country and how a huge percentage of teachers are inadvertently providing them a disservice by simply not knowing how to teach across a language barrier.”

It is especially discouraging, she said, because English language learners are the fastest growing population in the U.S. public school system. Not having qualified teachers to work with these students could mean they slip through the cracks. Having TESL programs with immersion opportunities can help save those students and ensure that they receive the education they deserve.

“It is disheartening to think that the majority of students that want to participate in this program cannot because of financial hardship,” Shriver said. “This program revolutionized my life’s goals, my professional potential and my cultural awareness. The five weeks I lived in Ecuador were truly the five best weeks of my life. I was enriched academically, socially, professionally, environmentally, personally and spiritually. I cannot think of many programs that can do all of that in one.”

Shriver said she hopes to return to Ecuador next summer to further develop her ESL teaching skills, improve on her Spanish and deepen the relationships she’s already established.

“I owe all of this to the scholarship I received from the College of Education, which reminded me that I could go to Ecuador, that it wasn’t impossible,” she said. “I cannot imagine my life without this experience.”

By Jessica Buterbaugh (November 2017)