Right off the third floor staircase in Blake Hall, there is a small classroom that seats no more than 20 students. There are posters with students’ writing hanging on the walls, serving as the quasi-artwork for the room. There are small orange pieces of paper spread all over the walls, each with a different time of the weekend, like “Friday night,” and “Saturday evening.” It is five minutes past nine in the morning and there are no students in this classroom.
It is now 9:10 and the teacher, Danica Messerli, is asking two students to say what they did over the weekend. Anagabrielle Conde from Puerto Rico and Olivia Le from Vietnam seem like an odd match at first glance but their nervous laughter while asked to speak in English provides a glimpse into how similar they are.
While Conde and Le work together, practically whispering while recapping their weekend, Messerli explains that the classroom is not usually this empty.
“The program ranges in size each semester, sometimes 20 students, sometimes 14. This semester, there’s only five students and class is more difficult when people are absent.”
The program Messerli is describing is the College Language and American Studies Program, an intensive English program offered at Springfield College in collaboration with the International Language Institute of Massachusetts. CLASP can be a stand-alone study abroad program or a pathway to a Springfield College degree.
This class, which runs from 9 a.m. to noon five days a week, is the communicative session, and the afternoon class is the academic reading and writing session.
Messerli has a welcoming smile and lightness to her that seems valuable when teaching the same students every day for an entire semester. That’s not to say she should be underestimated either, or else the sound of her clicker (used to let a student know he or she has made a grammatical mistake) will keep you up at night.
It is now 9:50 and two more students have arrived to class. Katie Chen and Kingsley Zhao, best friends from Shanghai, China, and current off-campus housemates, bring an infusion of energy to the classroom along with them.
While describing their weekends, Conde and Le each stumble over the word, “watched.” Something about the t-sound at the end is tripping them up and they both show signs of frustration. Messerli doesn’t let them off easily, pushing them to correctly say the word.
However, Le, who has already shown a more-than-solid grasp on English, isn’t finding the success she’s looking for and exclaims, “I hate that word.”
Messerli knows when not to push too hard, and keeps the lesson moving towards creating an opinion (or a thesis statement), powered by using the word, “should.”
“Academics in China and other countries are all about memorization. Here in America, we ask you to think critically,” said Suzanne Ryan, the program’s coordinator. “Some of these students have never done that before. ‘Why would you want to know what I think?’ Some students come from countries where it could be dangerous to speak freely because of their government.”
CLASP provides its students with much more than just the opportunity to learn and improve upon English reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. The program also offers immersion into American culture through various fieldtrips throughout the semester.
Some of the recent trips included visiting MassMoca, one of the largest centers for contemporary visual art and performing arts in the United States, attending the Smith College Spring Bulb Show, and seeing Adam Trent, a futuristic illusionist and magician, perform at City Stage.
“It is important for the students to be able to say, ‘This is what I did in Springfield and in Massachusetts,’” said Ryan. “Also, the students need to hear people speak English at a normal rate.”
Perhaps as important as the scheduled events the program offers, are the experiences the students have during their free time. Chen, a rehabilitation studies student, has spent time in both Northampton and Amherst, trying bubble tea in both towns.
“An important thing in America is that you have to have a car to go everywhere,” said Chen, mentioning that she misses the convenience of a big city like Shanghai.
Chen and Zhao needed to feel that type of freedom they had become accustomed to in China, so they bought a car and passed their road test in just their first few months in the states.
It is 10:15 and the students can sense their mid-class break is near. Their chatter in broken English grows into outright laughter and when asked what’s so funny, it turns out for one of Le’s practice opinion sentences, she wrote, “Kingsley should diet.”
Not to be outmatched, Messerli shows off her good humor, teasing Le for not having any Saturday night plans. Le proves that not only can she dish it out, but she can take it too, cracking a big smile.
When the students are struggling to find the English word they are looking for, Messerli draws a game of hangman on the dry erase board. The game is usually quickly solved, sometimes on the first try, and the lesson continues.
Right before the well-earned 20-minute break, Messerli informs the class that they will be presenting an opinion of theirs later that day. Audible groans arise but just like in any other class offered on Alden Street, they fall on deaf ears.
While the students all have varying levels of knowledge for the English language, one thing is for certain. None of them are ready just yet for an undergraduate or graduate class at the college. The International Center at Springfield College accepts students based on their transcript and test scores, the same as any American applicants, with the clause that they must complete CLASP before enrolling as full-time students.
This understandable wrinkle provides these students with an unexpected obstacle – meeting American students and befriending them. Isolated in Blake Hall every day for a semester, combined with commuting, tacked on to the language barrier, offers the almost insurmountable challenge of making new friends for the CLASP students.
Sitting down with Chen, she expressed how this bothered her, asking me at one point, “How do you make friends here?”
While making American companions has not come easily for Chen, she has been lucky to have her best friend Zhao with her in the program.
“We came here together and we were not nervous,” said Chen, when describing the transition from Shanghai to Springfield.
Conde is not alone at Springfield College either, as she has utilized her passion for volleyball to become friends with some of the Puerto Ricans on the men’s nationally ranked team at the college. She hopes to play volleyball for the Pride next semester, once she is a full-time student.
CLASP is as under-the-radar as a Springfield College program can get; however its academic intensity rivals most. Every day, these students commit themselves to learning a language that almost any other student at Springfield College was raised learning. They know that their journey after completing the program won’t be any easier but the plan is to have built a solid foundation of academic skills and communicative abilities. The students’ rich personalities and genuine interest in improving their English are what makes their leaders love working with them so closely.
“I applaud them. I really do,” said Ryan. “These students are doing such great things here and I applaud them for their effort.”