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NMSU outreach teaches communication skills to international military leaders

For the last four years, Patricia Wojahn has recruited instructors from New Mexico State University to spend part of their summers helping international students at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy in Fort Bliss, Texas. These soldiers are not only learning English skills along with their leadership training, but also gaining critical understanding of communication practices in the U.S.

NMSU student Jen England with her Fort Bliss class of international students (Courtesy Photo)

NMSU student Kelly Whitney with her Fort Bliss class of international students. (Courtesy Photo)

The academy, located in El Paso, educates soldiers from various branches of U.S. military service as well as international students from allied nations and turns them into senior enlisted leaders.

?People from more than 60 countries have been through the program so far,? said Wojahn, English professor in NMSU?s College of Arts and Sciences. ?Our role is to help these international students become familiar with U.S./English communication, primarily through writing. Practices of writing and interacting in other countries ? and in other countries? military organizations ? differ drastically, so we help them learn about local cultural practices as well.?

The international students? education levels may vary along with their English skills, presenting both challenges and opportunities for the instructors.

?In a given pre-course, there might be students representing 30-40 different countries,? said Jennifer England, instructor at the academy and current NMSU Rhetoric and Professional Communication student. ?Last summer I had students from countries that have been at war in the same classroom. While that type of situation hasn?t posed a problem, it does highlight the importance of discussing cultural differences and respect in the workplace and classroom.

?We usually spend the first week talking about culture stereotypes, differences and so on. The week culminates in a country and culture presentation from each student, which not only helps me understand their background but also gives everyone in the class a better understanding.?

England?s courses include brief lectures, peer reviews, one-on-one time with each student and class discussions, as well as brainstorming and free-writing activities to help students participate in discussions. England said she strives to create an environment where students rely on each other for guidance.

?I help them create a classroom community and encourage them to become resources for one another,? she said. ?These are highly trained men and women who are more than capable of success in the pre-course. However, many of them doubt their abilities because their English skills aren?t as strong as others?. I try to teach them that learning to communicate appropriately in English should be a community effort, and that as a classroom we can tackle any issues that arise.?

The academy?s first international student was Robert J. May of Australia, who started in August 1975 and graduated in January 1976. At the time he was the only international student in his class. Since then, the academy has graduated more than 500 international students.

While students graduate from the program with a greater understanding of English and U.S. culture, instructors also gain valuable insights from participating in the program.

?I get to meet so many interesting people from all over the world and learn about their countries, families and lives. Each year, one of my international students has been at the top of the class during the main course, and that makes me proud,? England said. ?I?ve found teaching this course has made me a better instructor in college courses as well. I now have more patience and a better understanding of learning styles.?

?It is amazing,? Wojahn added. ?By the semester?s end, the NMSU instructors report good rapport with their students and even among their students. Many students maintain contact with their first U.S. English teacher for years to come.?