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Voices of the Global Community

Aura Rios Erickson, ESL / International Student Advising Commission Chair

Aura Rios Erickson.jpgIs our profession facing a new trend? Are we ready for it?

When academic advisors think of ESL advising, they may think in terms of working with the International Program Office on their campuses. However, it does not matter if advisors assist students in engineering, nursing, their first year, or those who are undecided about their major, most academic advisors have had contact with students whose first language is not English.

Stephen Sahlman (2002) noted that U.S. Census Bureau figures show an '11.3 million (or 57 percent) increase (of foreign-born individuals in the U.S.), from 19.8 million in 1990 to 31.1 million in 2000, is unprecedented in the history of the United States, both numerically and proportionately' Student ethnic patterns will become even more diverse in the future. Academic advisors will see more students whose first language is not English (ESL). Are these students different from other students? Definitely, there are differences in terms of their needs. We, as advisors, must be aware of them; we must prepare ourselves to help these students.

Language proficiency should be our first concern when advising students. Language proficiency comprises the ability to read, write, speak and listen in a language. An advisor or instructor might assume that a student who speaks and understands English perfectly is proficient. It is especially important to note that many students come from countries where they learn only to 'speak' English but fail to learn how to write or read it. This is true for students who come from some African countries.

Also, it is possible to assume that a student is not proficient in English because he/she has difficulty speaking or understanding spoken English. Students who come from some Asian countries i.e., Korea, China, Vietnam, Japan, etc., might face a greater challenge trying to express themselves given the linguistic patterns of their native languages. It is likely that many of these immigrant students have spent several years learning to read and write English in their home countries.

Therefore, it is important that we obtain accurate information about each student's proficiency before developing an educational plan or class schedule with these students. Some of the most common assessment tools used by educational institutions include the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), COMPASS - ESL, and Michigan Language Test (MILT). These tools offer a comprehensive assessment of student proficiency in English.

Other factors that can influence proficiency are length of residence in the country, previous educational background, work experience and student age. Learning challenges faced by an older adult with little formal education who has lived in the United States for six years are quite different from those faced by a young, newly-arrived immigrant who was a working professional in his/her country and who possesses a strong educational background.

As advisors, we need to continually educate ourselves about other cultures so that we can connect with our students. We must be aware that individuals from different cultures view personal relationships in different ways. Advisors might find students who delay asking questions or resist becoming engaged in developing educational goals. These students may view advisors as possessing a position of authority. They expect our guidance and hold our relationship with them in the utmost respect. Sometimes, these students will not seek help out of a sense of embarrassment ('losing face') or shame.

Conversely, other students might come to advising appointments with their parents, children, spouses or close relatives. In some cultures, educational decisions are made by the group. At times, what will seem 'intrusive' in our culture is not seen that way in another culture. Working together is how they relate to each other. In these situations, our challenge is to welcome all parties while honoring the student's individual educational interests and needs.

Advisors should possess information regarding culturally relevant community resources. ESL students need advice, support and guidance regarding their educational future. In addition, these students may need assistance making a cultural adjustment. This adjustment period might involve experiencing anger, grief, and dealing with the loss they experience living in a different environment. Some students are able to adjust relatively quickly to their new environment. However, others go through a long period of transition and adjustment. Students who are going through difficult times often welcome help from someone who speaks their own language or understands their native culture.

Last, it is important that advisors have some basic knowledge of immigration-related terminology and/or information. The immigration issue has gained prominence in our national debate. Several states have instituted laws regarding undocumented immigrants. Some states allow undocumented immigrants to pay the 'resident' cost of college tuition. Other states have stricter rules for undocumented immigrants. It is important that we know our institution and state policies regarding this important issue.

NACADA provides a wealth of information to all advisors. The ESL / International Student Advising Commission provides a forum for advisors in need of information for dealing with situations with this particular student population. Members can join the commission list serve to post questions or concerns. Advisors who work with this student population should consider joining this commission.

Aura Rios Erickson
Shoreline Community College


Sahlman, Stephen. (2002). Immigration to the United States: 2002 Update. Population Resource Center.

Cite this article using APA style as: Rios Erickson, A. (2007, March). A new trend in advising: ESL advising. Academic Advising Today, 30(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2007 March 30:1


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