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Grad program in teaching ESL celebrates 40 years

September 27, 2004

Photo of students Cynthia Chen and Joe Lee who sold MA TESOL logo coffee mugs at the 40th anniversary galaSince its founding in 1964, the master's degree program in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (MA TESOL) has grown from a small startup with seven students to a booming, internationally respected training ground for aspiring English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers. The program now boasts about 240 students -- with 30 to 40 graduating each semester.

Students, alumni and current and retired faculty recently packed the Humanities Auditorium to standing-room only status in a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the program. It has come a long way since professors Lois Wilson, Dorothy Danielson, John Dennis, Ray Grosvenor, Thurston Womack, Daniel Glicksberg, Helen Hinze and Ken Croft realized an emerging need for ESL teachers and implemented a graduate program. Wilson taught S.F. State's first ESL methodology classes in 1959.

Nowadays, non-English speakers continue to immigrate to the United States in large numbers. More than 10.5 million U.S. residents speak little or no English, and nearly one-third of them live in California, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. In addition, English has evolved into the international language of business and diplomacy, TESOL faculty members said.

More than 1,500 people have graduated from SFSU's MA TESOL program, one of the oldest and largest in the country. Alumni hold key teaching and administrative positions in many parts of the world, including Caroline Vaughan, officer-in-charge of language and communication programs for the United Nations, and Sharon Seymour, chair of the ESL Department at City College of San Francisco.

Professor Pat Porter, an alumna of the program, said opportunities to travel abroad and work with people of different cultures make teaching ESL a desirable career.

"People like working in multicultural settings," she said. "To use a Buddhist term, it's 'right livelihood,'" meaning work that is ethical and helpful to others.

Students are drawn to SFSU because of its rich tradition, practical approach, location and enthusiastic faculty who are well-respected for their scholarship. Because of their national and international reputation, a number of faculty deliver plenary speeches and guest lectures at conferences throughout the United States and abroad on a regular basis.

"It is not an exaggeration to say that their collective professional accomplishments, especially given their heavy teaching workload, are truly exceptional," a recent external review of the program stated, referring to it as the "flagship TESOL program" in the CSU.

May Shih, professor of English and coordinator of MA TESOL, said she is continually surprised at how many people apply to the program based only on recommendations by alumni and a high regard for the program.

Faculty believe that the practical approach makes SFSU's program stand out among other TESOL master's programs. Students are required to gain experience teaching ESL classes before they graduate, instead of focusing mostly on theory.

"We always try to connect theory and practice," Shih said.

SFSU itself offers many opportunities for students to gain teaching experience, through its ESL program, American Language Institute and Learning Assistance Center.

Students and faculty say they appreciate the sense of community within the program. Students are always eager to volunteer, Shih said, noting that they organize a professional conference each semester.

Faculty members and students form strong bonds with each other, providing mutual support and keeping in touch after graduation.

"New faculty say they've never worked in a program as collegial," said faculty member Barry Taylor, who recently traveled to Peru for an alum's wedding.

Cynthia Cheng, a student who is also teaching at the American Language Institute this year, said she has enjoyed her time in the MA TESOL program thoroughly.

"It has an outstanding faculty, lots of social events and a sense of community," she said. "I've been to several schools and SFSU stands out. The classes are small and you get lots of attention from faculty. Faculty care about the students."

-- Matt Itelson


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Last modified September 27, 2004 by University Communications