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Meet Our Director: ESLI at WKU

Written by ESLI
Published on 2016-09-10

Our program at WKU has a new director, Wouter Van Alebeek, and we want you to meet him! Check out his interview below!

Why did you decide to work with international students?

Ever since I came to WKU as an exchange student in 2006, my life has been very much involved with international students. As an international student myself, a large portion of my friends were other international students or American students who worked with the international office. International students were the most welcoming students, and they truly made WKU my home. 

After I graduated with my Master’s degree from WKU, I knew I wanted to work in International Education. I worked for the Study Abroad office temporarily, but shortly after Ryan interviewed me to come and work for ESLi. The longer I worked with international students, the more I realized I wanted to advocate for them. I have experienced coming to the USA by myself and I know how difficult this is. International students deserve our understanding and appreciation.

What was your experience like coming to America from the Netherlands? Was it difficult to adjust? Explain.

Compared to many of our students at ESLi, I believe my adjustment was easier. The Netherlands is relatively similar to the USA so the differences were not as shocking to me. Western European culture has many of the same cultural values and almost all Dutch people speak English relatively well.However, moving to a new country by yourself is never easy. When I first came here I lost my luggage, did not have transportation, and I arrived two weeks before the first American students even came to campus. While the culture is similar, small things still threw me off. For example, for the first weeks I tried to answer the question “Hey, how are you?” seriously, but no one ever stopped to talk. Perhaps a bit slow, I started to realize this was just a greeting. Of course, I missed my family and friends back home, but the employees from the office of International Programs and the other international students made this much better.

Do you find working with international students more fulfilling than working with domestic college students? Explain.

Let me start by saying that I love working with college students. I like that course topics can be very serious and that high intellectual discussions take place on a daily basis. I find working with international students additionally rewarding though. As an employee, I have the honor to create relationships with people from all over the world. Additionally, many students know we care about them and that we will support them when they do not have their friends or family close.

Describe one anecdote where a language-related miscommunication caused a humorous outcome for a situation.

Miscommunications due to second-language learning mistakes can sometimes be pretty funny. We have had numerous students mispronounce words that were pronounced like curse words or words that a native speaker would find inappropriate. The anecdote that I cannot get out of my head though is one unrelated to our students. It is related to my mother. When I was in high school, I had a Polish exchange student with whom we spoke English to bridge the gap between Dutch and Polish. In Dutch, someone can say “Je mag nog wel wat meer, hoor,” which means, “It is okay, you can have some more.”In this case “hoor” lightens up the sentence like “it is okay” would in English. However, if you use “hoor” in an English sentence it sounds very similar to a very unkind word. As in “you can have some more bread, hoor.” My mother had the tendency to mix her Dutch and English and this happened a few times. As a high-school student with very low levels of maturity, all I could do was laugh out loud…. every time.

Explain what it’s like to watch a student grow from someone who speaks little or no English to a confident English speaker on his or her way to the university.

It is awesome. Especially when a student starts from a very low level with us. It is amazing when you see a student become more confident in their use of English. They start understanding jokes, and most of them are rightfully proud when they reach this level.

If you could give other international educators one piece of advice, what would it be?

This advice is also to myself, as I do not always remember this when the office gets really busy, but make sure you listen to students. Make sure that you build a relationship with them and show them that you care. Students who are far away from home already feel separated from their comfort zone. These students need us to be there for them, to be their voice, and to listen to them when they have something to say. When work gets busy and some questions feel like complaints, I sometimes forget to take a minute and listen, but nothing is more important.

Do you have any suggestions for someone who is considering ESLi for themselves or who may know someone who might be interested?

Generally, when it comes to education, I would recommend students to think about what they want. ESLi is an Intensive English Language Program that teaches towards enrollment in higher education. I truly believe that our program provides the correct mix of college preparation in English and the environment to adjust to living on/near an American college campus. 

Student should consider what is important for them. If they want to be prepared for University entry by being built up to achieve University-level English language skills, ESLi is the right program. If you are interested in the easiest way to enter a university, perhaps ESLi is not the right program. We care about students and their future. We prepare students to be successful. This sometimes also means that we believe students are not ready for the next level and need more practice. There is no shame in more practice, but students should trust that we are here to make sure they do not struggle at the University because of their language abilities. 

Similarly, students should consider what institution, major, and location is best for them. Do they want a major city with many facilities but also many distractions? Do they want a small city, where they can focus on their studies and travel away during the weekend?

Do they want to participate in research at the university? Do they want to study engineering, medicine, sociology? For all these preferences, some institutions are better suited to meet those needs than others. This is the advice I have. Students need to think about what they want in the future so they can prepare for it now. We are available to talk to students about these aspects while they are studying English.

ESLI Centers in the United States are accredited by CEA.