The United States has always been known as a melting pot. Saint Leo University is proud to be able to use a similar analogy to describe its student population.

Throughout its long and storied history, Saint Leo has welcomed a large number of international students from a wide range of countries around the globe. This includes both undergraduate and graduate students attending its University Campus in Saint Leo, Fla., its education centers around the country and through its numerous online degree programs.

Bridging the Gap

Dr. Iona Sarieva, director of Saint Leo's Bridge Program, says the university offers a curriculum for many international freshmen who need to work on their academic English. 

"Back in 2012, we received a large group of students from the Middle East who were proficient in conversational English," she recalls. "But once they started their studies, it appeared that they were struggling with certain aspects of reading and writing academic English. So, a full curriculum was developed to meet the needs of these students, which includes academic reading and writing, an introduction to American academic culture courses, as well as learning labs in student practice and develop a further variety of academic skills such as pronunciation, presentation skills, group work skills, critical and strategic thinking."

Sarieva, an assistant professor who teaches English for Academic Purposes, originally hails from Bulgaria and came to the U.S. as an international student herself. She has taught in a number of different countries spanning three continents. There are two other instructors who teach in the program as well. Natalya Glover from Ukraine teaches writing, while Marcella Van Olphen from Argentina handles courses on university culture.

Students who have enrolled in the curriculum have come from a wide range of nations, including Saudi Arabia, China, Egypt, Nigeria, Japan, Turkey, Mexico and Spain to name just a few. The actual list of Bridge students' homelands is much longer. As of January 2018, over 300 international students are enrolled in the entire Saint Leo system, some of whom are supported by the Bridge Program.

In its early years of existence, the Bridge Program has already demonstrated a positive impact on students. There have been 188 students to complete the track.

Plus, the school's retention rate of these international students while they are in the Program on its University Campus is significantly higher than the overall campus average. Also, these students' average GPA earned in their mainstream classes has been slightly higher than the overall University Campus population's average GPA. The program is accredited by the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation.

Sarieva says the mission of the Program is to support international students by providing quality English for Academic purposes curriculum and assure their smooth transition and adaptation to the new academic culture.

"Our goal is to help our students be as successful as they possibly can and reach their full potential and maximize their opportunity for academic success."

Benefits of Enrolling International Students

According to Sarieva, there are countless advantages to having a diverse university community.

"It is obviously consistent with our mission and core values," she says. "It's also very beneficial for all of our students to be exposed to greater diversity. Plus, I believe it is beneficial for any university to have alumni in other countries."

Along with the academic side of the Bridge Program, it also offers socials, picnics and other activities for students to connect and make friendships outside of the classroom.

Perspectives from Saint Leo Students

Colett Ramph, a 25-year-old graduate student who is earning her MBA from Saint Leo and previously earned a bachelor's in economics there, came from Berlin, Germany.

"I'm very fortunate to have had this opportunity to earn my bachelor's and master's degrees here," she confides.

She's also a student-athlete who competes in cross country and track.

"Everyone has been very helpful in making me comfortable in this environment and helping me master the language here. When I first came here, I knew a little English but honestly wasn't that good at it."

Whether it's a prospective international student or one coming from right down the road, Ramph has a positive message for everyone based on her own experience.

"It's kind of like a second home to me," she says. "As a person, you will figure out who you really are and what you want to do in the future."

Another European student, Rafal Matuszczak, hails from Wchowa, Poland. The 2017 alum earned his bachelor's in computer science and works as a software developer in San Francisco, Calif.

"The classes in the Bridge Program were really helpful and expanded my knowledge of reading and writing English," the 23-year-old says. "I honestly was a little skeptical at first, but I never felt like I was behind the other students as far as language goes. I even got to write for the student newspaper."

He adds that he felt like he fit right into campus life not long after he started his classes.

"The first few months were tough, of course, since I had never been away from home in Poland for more than a month. All of the people I met were so helpful and friendly. I also think being on the cross country and track teams helped a lot because I got to bond with my teammates."

Natalia Garriock came to Saint Leo from Vancouver Island, Canada. While her English was good enough for her to excel without additional language coursework, she admits it was still a bit of an adjustment.

"I wanted to go to college someplace warm," she says. "Saint Leo had a beautiful campus. I'm a swimmer, and I was on a recruiting website and eventually was contacted by the coach at Saint Leo. He offered me what I was looking for, and the rest is history."

The 21-year-old senior marketing major, who is also a three-time All-American on the swimming team, says Canadian students must declare their major as freshmen in college. She liked how she could try some classes at Saint Leo before officially making this decision.

"It's a great environment and very multicultural. I've met so many cool people here. Everyone has always been so welcoming."

Final Words

Sarieva believes Saint Leo offers a unique track for international students to finish their degrees and start their careers faster than they could elsewhere.

"Because our Bridge Program incorporates language courses right into the degree programs, students can start their studies at Saint Leo even if their knowledge of English is at an intermediate level and still finish their degrees within four years. The Bridge Program saves time but what is more important – it makes students feel at home on campus right away."

LEARN MORE: Check out Saint Leo's Bridge Program on Facebook to find out more about this unique program and the school's many talented international students from all backgrounds.

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