Rowan University at Camden

Rowan's Intensive English Language Program helps students learn English and succeed in America.

In a room on Rowan's Camden Campus, 13 students pore over The Great Gatsby, but this is no ordinary study of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic.

For these students, all of whom are enrolled in Rowan's Intensive English Language Program, the lesson is not just about Fitzgerald's great novel, his vision of 1920s America or his take on wealth, class, love and death. It's as much or more about the language itself and learning to communicate in English.

The IELP, a central part of Rowan at Camden since its founding more than 40 years ago, is designed to help students improve their command of English well enough to succeed in college and pursue their own American dream. The program includes a combination of local immigration students and international students, all studying together as they work toward university admission.

Rowan's Director of English Language Programs Jacqueline McCafferty said IELP students come from all over the world – Vietnam, South and Central America, Iraq, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, even Russia.

"Just follow the geo-political landscape and you can see where they're coming from," McCafferty said.

She said most of the roughly 50 students now enrolled come from Spanish-speaking countries and Vietnam, many of whom were actively recruited by Rowan.

"The fastest growing segment in New Jersey's K-12 population is English language learners," McCafferty said. "The students who come to Rowan through the IELP have been identified as good students who need additional language support in order to succeed in higher education."

For many, the program begins not following high school graduation but the summer between their junior and senior year when they come to Rowan as part of the IELP's High School Scholar Program, take part in intensive ESL classes, and begin to prepare for their college education.

Five levels

Rowan's IELP brings students along through five stages in which the curricula become increasingly more rigorous as an ever-greater emphasis is placed on academic reading, writing and speaking in English.

Students progress as a cohort, or group, a learning community that builds camaraderie and leads, for many, to friendships that last a lifetime. In addition, the program incorporates the arts and experiential learning so students learn to express themselves in English and have field experiences that complement the class work.

The IELP introduces its students to a variety of academic discourses, including American literature, sociology, and psychology.  Students may also take university classes that enhance language proficiency, such as Intro to Acting, a class that exposes students to Shakespeare and other classics and helps build confidence and language skills.

Tran, Perez and McCafferty

"Having fun in the classroom is the best way to learn," said Curt Whipple, who has taught speech and theatre at Rowan at Camden for almost 20 years. "I use Dr. Suess to help teach vowel sounds because it works. It really, really works."

Students this past summer took part in a service learning project at Cooper University Hospital in Camden in which, speaking with patients in their native tongue, they helped facilitate communication between patients and staff.

Cindy Perez, 17, a freshman IELP student whose goal is to become an obstetrician, said between the summer learning experience and her first year courses she's off to a good start.

"My goal is to become a doctor but I'll need to be able to communicate well," said Perez, who hails from the Dominican Republic but graduated in May from Pennsauken High School. "Having strong English skills will help me reach my goal."

Jay Tran, a counselor in Rowan's Equal Opportunity Fund program and advisor to IELP students, said he relates especially well to students struggling with a new country, culture and language. When Tran was a teenager his family emigrated from Vietnam by boat as part of a vast group of people fleeing an oppressive Communist regime.

"The idea of coming to America is still a dream for many people," said Tran, who spoke no English when his own family arrived. "Many immigrants become very successful in America but they have to work very hard and have to know the language. This program can help you learn the language."

From English to Engineering

When he arrived in the U.S. from the Dominican Republic, Euver Joaquin Castillo spoke almost no English. He enrolled in Rowan's IELP, completed it in one year, and is now a sophomore Mechanical Engineering student in Rowan's College of Engineering.

Even more impressive, he's carrying a perfect 4.0 GPA.

"I can honestly say I couldn't have done this without the IELP," said Castillo, whose immediate family remains in the Dominican Republic. "The program created a sense of belonging and helped me build the skills I needed to succeed here."

Castillo, who understood some English but could not speak it when he arrived in the U.S., said his command of the language improves all the time and he's fluent enough now to understand lectures, interact with classmates and faculty, and comprehend the often-difficult engineering texts.

"I'm very comfortable reading and speaking in English now," Castillo said. "There would be no way to keep my 4.0 if I couldn't."