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Adjusting to America

Fulbright scholars transition with CELOP

Margot Valdivia and Fulbright Students at CELOP. Photo by Linda Haas

Constant Ouapo, a Fulbright scholar from the Ivory Coast, speaks fluent French and Japanese and is well on the way to mastering English. Bostonian, however, continues to elude him.

“When our teachers speak, we understand more than 90 percent,” says Ouapo, who will pursue an MBA in agribusiness at West Texas A & M in the fall. But on a day spent touring the city and interacting with natives, he says, “I couldn’t understand a word.”

Overcoming the challenges presented by regional accents is just one of the reasons Ouapo, along with 64 other Fulbright scholars from around the world, is spending four weeks this summer at Boston University’s Center for English Language and Orientation Programs (CELOP). The 30-year-old center offers a variety of programs to help international students improve their language skills and acclimate to life in the United States before beginning their studies.

“We will work to ensure that the students entering our program develop strong English language skills that will allow them to be successful in the classroom,” says Margot Valdivia, CELOP’s director. “But we will also focus on introducing them to life in the United States.”

The scholars, who come from 36 different countries, including Afghanistan, Brazil, Iraq, Russia, Swaziland and Vietnam, are placed in different English-language classes, depending on their fluency. While many are able to speak comfortably, they do not feel prepared to begin an advanced program of study at an American university.

“Even though we got some English classes in our country, French is the official language,” says Kabata Tshepelayi, a scholar from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who will study agricultural economics at the University of Nebraska. “It is not very easy to undertake an academy program with that learning.”

Their studies outside of CELOP’s classrooms play an equally important role, however, giving students a real taste of what day-to-day life in America is like. They live together in a dorm on Bay State Road and learn how to buy groceries, use public transportation, and have ordinary interactions with Americans. 

The last component goes a long way in helping the scholars feel comfortable with their new lives — many of them develop expectations based on third-party descriptions of Americans and are often intimidated by what they hear, believing that people will be unapproachable and unwilling to help them. “Before I came to the U.S., I had an impression that the people in the U.S. are hostile,” says Isyaku Indabawa, a scholar from Nigeria who plans to get a Ph.D. in biology from Syracuse University. “But I find it opposite. The relationship is really very, very cordial.”

“People look very serious, but when you start to talk to them, they change,” adds Betha Wangai, who came from Indonesia to study business at the University of Akron. “They become very friendly.”