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Saint Leo University Program for Second-Language Learners from Abroad Satisfies Distinct Needs

Instruction boosts international students' command of academic English and helps them adapt to American campus life, leading to greater college success.

Tags: Featured Bridge Program Press Releases International International Students College of Arts and Sciences Tapia College of Business Department of Language Studies and the Arts
7 September 2021 - By Jo-Ann Johnston
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About 275 new international students from 50 countries arrived at University Campus within the last two weeks for the Fall 2021 Semester and the start of their college careers.

For these students, college can be an even larger investment than for their American counterparts, but they are looking forward to ample rewards. "The U.S. higher education system is considered the top quality in the world," said Dr. Iona Sarieva, an associate professor in the Department of Language Studies and the Arts. And many American colleges and universities are eager to enroll students who want to come to the United States for study, Sarieva added.

But not all international students who are otherwise academically qualified for college arrive with the level of English language skills required not just to converse, or follow American television shows, but to comprehend their textbook readings, write college-level papers in English, and participate in thoughtful classroom discussions or study groups and advising and tutoring sessions. Students from Puerto Rico may also encounter this situation as Spanish is more prevalent, even though English is also one of the official languages of the U.S. territory.

Students' results on a standardized academic test of English proficiency help indicate whether they will need a stronger command of English for academic purposes.

Saint Leo has developed a curriculum called the Bridge Program and Sarieva directs it. The Bridge Program has been helpful to students whose first languages have been Spanish, another European based language, Chinese, and Korean, among others.

(Saint Leo's virtual Campus Tour is available in English, 한국어, 中文, Português, and Español (

The program has become increasingly effective since it was first launched in 2012, Sarieva said, and it compares favorably with English-acquisition programs at other colleges and universities. Domestic students benefit from the success of this program as well, Sarieva contended, as it helps internationalize the Saint Leo campus.

This year, the Bridge Program will reach some new milestones. Twenty-two undergraduates are enrolled. In a new development, seven graduates enrolled in the program (and are treated as continuing undergraduates for tuition-payment purposes), and will then proceed into graduate studies at Saint Leo's Tapia College of Business.

Some of the key facts about the program and its requirements are:

  • The program's duration will be either one or two semesters, depending on the needs of the student. In the two-semester, or regular track, students will take courses awarding three credits each in: English composition and grammar; college reading; listening, speaking and academic note-taking; and a course covering the cultural competencies the students need to understand the social, academic, and moral norms in American university life. A two-credit academic lab course is also required to acquaint students with university resources and regulations, and to give them the oral and written college-level presentation skills they need. That is a full semester of courses. Bridge courses can be counted as university-level electives in degree planning. All Bridge students also take a one-credit class "First Year Experience." This course is part of the first-semester curriculum for all freshman students at Saint Leo. Being part of this course helps the Bridge students to start the integration in their new academic community.
  • The second semester of the regular track includes three courses that are each three credits, and continue the study of college reading, English composition, and academic skills development. That leaves room for two other courses in the students' schedules, which can be filled by taking courses from the required liberal-arts core.
  • Students in most majors find there are enough opportunities for elective courses in their schedules to accommodate the Bridge Program courses described above without requiring of them an extra semester or two of school to complete their desired degree, Sarieva said.
  • Some students need only one semester of Bridge Program instruction, and are able to complete the "fast track," which consists of the second-level courses in college reading, English composition, academic skills development, and cultural competence. There is still room for a three-credit liberal arts class selection that semester as well as for the one-credit class "First Year Experience" required for all freshmen.
  • The classes are small and taught by Sarieva and other instructors who are experts in the field of second-language acquisition and instruction.
  • A university study concluded that international students who completed the Bridge Program went on to earn grade averages equivalent to their native-speaking counterparts on campus during the sophomore year of study.
  • International students may enroll in the university and the Bridge Program in the spring semester of the academic year, as an alternative to the fall start.
  • The Bridge Program has social components, including field trips, except when COVID-19 safety protocols have prevented them. Common destinations are downtown St. Petersburg and the [Salvador] Dalí Museum, for a walkable, internationally-influenced city scene and art museum; and Fort De Soto Park in Pinellas County (it neighbors Pasco, the home county of Saint Leo University) for outdoor recreation, its grilling areas, and beach access.
  • Bridge Program students also participate in other campus events that involve the broader university population, and some play on Saint Leo athletics

  • The program has been reviewed and accredited by an outside agency that specializes in ensuring the quality of academic English-language curricula at colleges internationally and in the United States, the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation.

Bridge Program students' experiences

In addition to statistics that testify to the effectiveness of the Bridge Program, Sarieva points to the experiences of students who say they gained confidence through the program and made lasting friendships.

Doriann Pina, for instance, a sophomore this year, reported feeling better equipped to tackle her academic goals after her Bridge studies last year. She came to Saint Leo to earn a degree in biology, specifically in the biomedical and health sciences track—a challenging program. Although Pina was born in the United States, she was raised in Cape Verde, a nation of islands off the coast of West Africa where Portuguese is the dominant language. She learned English growing up by studying "music, books, movies, and shows" and practicing. After she arrived at Saint Leo, however, she felt overwhelmed and confused and decided that she needed "more guidance and more improvement on my English skills before I started my major."

She still had anxieties when she arrived at the classroom for her first Bridge class, but recalled that Sarieva put the class at ease when she welcomed them. The program helped her academically, socially, and culturally, she said. "The professors were very patient, friendly, competent, and always willing to help with whatever I needed." She had new friends from Haiti, Vietnam, Italy, and Qatar.

After her second semester at Saint Leo, Pina was accepted into the university's Honors Program for high-achieving students, which has a focus on global citizenship. She also helps other students with her major in Bridge.

One student, from Syria, was actually afraid to speak much when he first arrived on campus. The program helped him overcome worries about making mistakes and allowed him to focus on the progress he was making, he said. His name is Ammar Mohrat and he ended up being a student speaker in 2018 for his undergraduate commencement. He works in the technology industry today.

Benefits of international experiences for U.S. students

Sarieva said that American students at University Campus also benefit from the presence of the Bridge Program. Because it allows Saint Leo to attract more international students, she said, it advances the diversity of the campus. "It adds to the strength of the community," she said.

As today's students enter the workforce, she explained, they will also reap benefits from having studied and lived with people from other cultures. They will have learned, from a young age, that people from different cultures and nations can collaborate, a point she considers essential for career success. "We are living in a globalized world."