May 8, 2013

International students make the grade

By DARINA NAIDU Contributing Writer

---- — PLATTSBURGH — Marcela Brasil traveled all the way from Brazil to Plattsburgh to study journalism. 

However, the SUNY Plattsburgh student didn’t know much English, and it was definitely a struggle in the beginning.

“It was really hard because people would speak really fast,” she said. “I also have an accent, so they couldn’t understand me sometimes, and I couldn’t express myself.”

English is not the first language of about 80 percent of international students at SUNY Plattsburgh, according to Catrillia Young, associate director of the Global Education Office.

Katherine Friedrich, international application coordinator for that office, said that regardless of one’s native tongue, an adjustment is a normal process when being in a different country.

“(But) the adjustment is harder for students who come to study ESL (English as a second language),” she said.


During her first year, Brasil learned basic English in the college’s ESL Bridge Program; its classes are required for all students whose first language is not English.

Marcia Gottschall, interim coordinator of the ESL program, said some of the international students who come do not need extra work, as their English is as good as Americans’.

“But, that’s a minority, and it’s usually students from Europe, Canada and the Caribbean,” she said. 

“Usually, we already have an idea of their level of English from their TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and SAT scores before they come to college.”

During their first week in school, Gottschall said, the students take four tests: reading, writing, listening and speaking. Depending on the results, they are placed in the appropriate level class for ESL.

English 100 and English 101 are the two upper-level classes. Other ESL classes include three levels of speaking classes, two levels of grammar and listening classes, vocabulary, conversation, pronunciation, reading and writing classes.


For most international students, the hardest part of adjustment is during their first few weeks.

Khalil Laouani, a student from Tunisia, said it was hard because everybody, including other international students, had a different accent.

However, he said, his professors and friends have always helped him and are very understanding. 

“But other people don’t understand, and sometimes they make jokes.”

Christa Ettee, from Syria, experienced similar situations. 

She did not feel much culture shock when she arrived in the United States, and her English was quite proficient, as she had attended an high school where students had to speak English or face detention.

Even so, she has had to make adjustments of her own.

“Sometimes, it’s frustrating because there’s always someone who asks me about my accent,” she said. “Or they would not understand, for example, they would ask, ‘Did you say class or glass?’ 

”But they do it as a joke, not in a bad way.”


International students are not the only ones who take ESL classes.

“About 40 percent of Americans take English 100,” Gottschall said.

International students, though, usually need extra support from professors, tutors and other reinforcement, she said.

Gottschall said the lowest-level classes are usually more exciting to teach because they consist of small groups, and the students show rapid progress. 

“Most of the students want to get better (at English), and they’re happy to get the teachers’ help and tutoring sessions.”

Gottschall said those students start with writing short paragraphs, and by the end of the semester, it becomes short essays.


Sandu Karunarathne, a student from Sri Lanka, had also attended a high school where English was spoken, so the language, she said, isn’t much of a challenge.

“I don’t usually have a problem to communicate in English, but when it comes to explaining something very personal, sometimes the right words don’t come out,” she said.

However, she, Brasil, Laouani and Ettee agree on one thing: Most Americans are friendly, helpful and understanding.

“That’s why I love Plattsburgh. The people are so friendly, and they respect that I’m an international student,” Karunarathne said.


The Global Education Office exists specifically to advise international students.

As well, Friedrich said, “we have the advantage of having many international students here, and finding a translator isn’t hard — it is very rare that we’ve had a student come from a country where no one knew the language.” 

And if that happens, they find someone off campus who can help.

Most of the international students who come to SUNY Plattsburgh work hard and find great success, Gottschall said. 

“It’s just hard at the beginning.”