U program fights language barriers

by Greg Corradini

OThis is the final story in a four-day series about diversity on campus.

One program convinced Ahmed Jama to become a student at the University.

Jama, a Somali refugee, came to the United States at age 12 after spending two years in a Kenyan refugee camp.

In high school, he said, he wanted to continue his education but didn’t know which university to attend.

During his senior year, Jama decided to take a General College class in his high school’s Commanding English program, an extension of the University’s program, he said.

The class was a transitioning point, Jama said.

“I don’t think without that experience that I would have ever come (to this university),” said Jama, who is also president of the Somali Student Association.

Program Director Robin Murie said Commanding English builds language support around General College classes. The program is meant for talented first-year students who speak English as a second language, she said.

At the same time, the program is a pipeline that brings diversity to the University, because an extension of the program operates in area high schools.

Commanding English began 25 years ago as a response to changing demographics in the Twin Cities, when the first wave of Southeast Asian refugees started attending the University, Murie said.

But the recent task force recommendations to merge General College with a restructured College of Education and Human Development are worrying some officials of the Commanding English program, they said.

The report recommends the program to be aligned with the new college, but no specific guidelines for its implementation are mentioned.

That ambiguity has left many General College officials and students, such as Jama, worried the proposed changes might create a less supportive environment for students with English as their second language.

“Losing (General College) would mean losing the students who are eager to learn,” Jama said.

But Robert Jones, senior vice president for system administration, said the University values Commanding English.

“There is no intention to change that program,” Jones said. “All we want to do is try to strengthen it.”

He said the task force intentionally didn’t put a lot of detail in the report about how the Commanding English implementation process will happen.

Jones said the implementation task force that will be chosen – if the Board of Regents approves the recommendation – will be responsible for deciding the specifics of that process.

How it works

The Commanding English program works with first-year students to build language skills for two semesters.

If a student takes biology, Murie said, there will be a Commanding English small group that will meet twice a week to study the textbook’s vocabulary and readings.

“It allows them to take biology and allows us to work with them very deliberately on reading strategies and skills,” she said.

Murie said Commanding English is different from English-as-a-second-language programs because it allows students to take college classes for credit.

Most students have to take ESL courses for noncredit English work before they attend college, she said.

In 1990, Commanding English expanded its reach into high schools for students who needed assistance preparing for college.

Edison, Roosevelt and Washburn high school students who become part of the program can take General College-level classes for credit.

A loss of support

Murie said she believes that Commanding English will continue if the board approves the task force recommendations. But she said she wonders if the program will have the same supportive environment it did in General College.

One of the reasons General College works, she said, is that teachers and advisers have the ability to work closely with students.

University senior Faiza Aziz echoed those concerns about the program’s fate.

Aziz was in Roosevelt High School’s Commanding English program and now works with high school students as the College Connections program coordinator.

She said some students in the program did not go directly to the University after their previous schooling.

In addition, she said many Commanding English students were not raised in Western societies. Sometimes, it is very hard for them to adjust to the U.S. school system and its curriculum, she said.

General College, she said, provides a friendly, unrestricted environment for those types of students to move through.

Breaking away

Dan Detzner, General College associate dean, said Commanding English is not a separate program that can be taken out of its General College environment.

“It’s a misunderstanding of how that program operates, to say you can just break it off and stick it somewhere else,” he said. “It is integrated into the fabric of what we do here.”

Detzner said he has seen the program work because he used to help teach a Commanding English writing class.

He said he would like to see the implementation process for the University’s future slow down.

Administrators should sit down with other experts and talk about how the proposed program changes should be handled, he said.

But Jones said that whether the program stays affiliated with the new department or moves somewhere else, it is a decision for the implementation task force to make.

Jones also said there is nothing in the task force recommendations that said the new college will not continue to admit students who need academic assistance and exposure to educational curriculum.

“We are not trying to destroy opportunity for students who need that kind of assistance,” Jones said.