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English Language Center: Breaking the barriers

To study at RIT, international students must meet the university's regular academic requirements for admission. Before they can begin a degree program, they also must demonstrate proficiency in English either by taking the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or by passing a battery of English tests offered by RIT's English Language Center.

The center helps students from abroad achieve this goal. The center traces its origins to 1979, when Rhona Genzel took an idea to several Rochester-area colleges.

"I suggested that the area needed an intensive English-language program," says Genzel, who had background in Spanish and Russian and had worked in the training department at Xerox. Only RIT agreed to give her idea a try. Genzel was hired on a per-hour basis.

As it turned out, she was right: There was a demand for such a service. Today, the English Language Center provides classes to 70 to 100 students each quarter. Genzel is director and there are four full-time faculty members plus adjuncts as needed.

Some students spend just a quarter or two in the program before starting college classes, others continue for a year or more. They take reading, writing, grammar, conversation, and vocabulary as well as elective classes in pronunciation, listening, presentation, business communications and TOEFL preparation. Students from many different countries take classes together, "and that's what the students want," says Genzel. "Our students not only learn English, they also learn about each other."

There are outings and events for the students, such as trips to Niagara Falls and local restaurants, providing first-hand experiences in American customs and culture.

Most of the students who attend the ELC fulltime apply to RIT and become matriculated students. Others such as 1994 Olympic gold medal-winning speed skater Ki-Hoon Kim of South Korea and Dr. Mammary Kone, a specialist in malaria research from Mali come to RIT solely to learn English at the center. The center also arranges customized classes and individualized instruction for businesses that wish to offer language training for employees. The center also hires international students to teach their native language to anyone interested.

RIT remains the only university in the area that offers an extensive English language program of this type.