A Conversation with Kathy

Today I experienced a very different pre-interview than the last one I had, and a pre-interview that will likely take me in different directions. Last time I was speaking to an expert on my topic who was mostly giving me information. This time I was speaking to somebody in a related but different field—our topic focuses on ELL education in primary and secondary education, while she works with international college students who have mostly already learned English. So this time, I was doing some information-giving of my own, which was good practice on its own. In the past two months since I joined this new topic, I’ve gotten much better at explaining my topic, the project, and our goals. This was another good chance to practice.

I also got some more background information about the International Student and Scholar Services, the program of which Kathy is the director and dean. It turns out that the program focuses mostly on international students’ transition to the college, helping them get acclimated by running an early arrival program three days before orientation. Year-round, however, it plays less of an active role in student’s lives, although it is always open for them to come to for help. They run a program called “Friends of International Students”, in which students are voluntarily matched with host families to give them connections to the community, but again, most of their involvement happens just in the beginning of the year. The year-round workshops it does run are mostly focused on practical skills rather than intercultural communication; Kathy said they “just scratch the surface” of this aspect. In large part, this is because they don’t need to provide quite as much instruction. A great many of the students are already coming from international schools where they spoke English, and all of them chose to come to Middlebury knowing they would need English. If there are students who need extra help, they sometimes visit Middlebury’s school in Monterey, which does have an ELL program. But in general, Middlebury’s students are not English Language Learners the way we are categorizing them.

However, this does not mean that there is no connection between college students and the ELL students that we are looking into. In talking to Kathy, I realized that perhaps I was looking at the wrong group of college students: instead of thinking about international students who learned English elsewhere, why not focus on former ELL students who are coming to college from America, where they learned English previously? When I mentioned this to Kathy, she seemed enthusiastic. She said that Middlebury certainly have students who fall into this category, and while she doesn’t work directly with them, she could connect me to people who do. Furthermore, she suggested that I look into students at St. Michael’s and UVM, and these students would be even more likely to come from the Vermont school system. I believe Clara has contact with some students at UVM, and my conversation made me excited about that. Interviewing students who have gone through the ELL education system and gone on to college sheds a hopeful light on the situation. These are success stories, in a way, and these students could provide hindsight on their experiences that current students might not necessarily be able to give while still going through the experience. So talking to college students is a direction I definitely would like to explore, if in a different way than I originally thought.

Our conversation also touched on the cycle of cultural transition, and the communication skills people can use with talking to ELLs or previous ELLs: knowing that they might not automatically understand what we are trying to say, communicating the same thing in multiple different phrasings to get the point across, and trying to see from their point of view. She suggested a new question to add to our interview questions for students: “What would you want people to know about your situation?” Sparked by this one, I thought of another one: “What simple things can other people do every day to help?”

These are all useful and interesting directions away from Kathy, but now the question remains: do I go back to film an interview with her? On one hand, she fully admits to not being an expert on the subject of ELL education, we have plenty of closer connections to interview, and there is always the pressing question of time. On the other hand, she had insightful things to say, and there are more questions I could ask her. Among them: What do you do in your position as director and dean of the ISSS? What are differences between international students and ELL students? What similarities do they share? What might be differences or similarities in their experiences in the US? Are there any programs at the college that you feel could be translated effectively to high schools? (She mentioned the possibility of hosting ELL students in a similar program to what the college does.) These questions could yield good answers in addition to what I heard today, and it would be nice to get her on film. Yet I’m also skeptical about pursuing an interview that isn’t crucial, with only a month left to get all of our footage. My gut reaction says that this interview isn’t worth it to pursue further, that I’ve gotten what I can get from it without filming. I’ll have to ask my team, and go from there.

Featured image by j.vandenberg

Greta Hardy-Mittell

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