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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Immersed in English

Martha Escobar, a speech pathologist in her native Colombia, wanted to pursue a similar career after she moved to New York City three years ago. But her limited English proved a barrier. Then she learned about a language immersion program at Borough of Manhattan Community College. After pursuing those classes, along with coursework in speech pathology at Lehman College, she has started working in her field, interning in a program for autistic children in the Bronx.

Her English has improved as well, she said. "My boyfriend is French, and now I correct him when we speak in English,” she said.

Students like Escobar are hardly unusual at City University of New York these days. Campus-wide applications to the City University of New York are up 16 percent from last year. Approximately one-third of the applicants are immigrants for whom English is not their first language and many more are first-generation children of immigrants. Attending college can make an enormous difference in their lives: According to the recent book Passing the Torch by CUNY sociologists Paul Attewell and Steve Lavin, U.S. immigrants who receive at least some post-secondary education significantly increase their children’s chances of getting a college education and, in turn, raising their children’s social, intellectual and economic level. At the same time, CUNY has introduced policies designed to raise it educational standards.

All of this has increased pressure on City University and other New York institutions to create more facilities and programs for English language. “Learning a new language well enough to perform well in college is an enormous task and requires work on many different skills,” says Ellen Balleisen, a CUNY language instructor for over 20 years. These skills take time and active assistance to learn.


CUNY’s traditional programs for speakers of other languages serve many students, particularly those who already have a strong base in English. These classes provide a valuable bridge to regular college courses by giving the students a semester or two of language learning in reading, writing, speaking and listening.

But for some students these more conventional programs do not offer enough. To address that, 12 years ago, Leslee Oppenheim, director of literacy programs at CUNY, started the CUNY Language Immersion Program (CLIP) for students with extensive language needs. It is designed to be an academic program for committed immigrant students with little background in English. Students spend 25 hours a week in class, focusing on a theme, Utopia, say, or an aspect of America, rather than on language instruction per se. This borrows from a concept used in many entry-level composition and humanities college courses nationwide.

Oppenheim says the approach offers a number of benefits. “There’s the intensive nature of the program – 25 hours a week is the foremost qualifier,” she said. “The theme-based content provides a language learning experience based more on a college course model. I think we provide a rehearsal for the content they’ll find their freshman year.”

CLIP is now a department at all CUNY community colleges and at three four-year schools: City College of Technology, York College and College of Staten Island. The immersion program provides a number of benefits not offered by more traditional English as a second language courses.


While standard English programs for speakers of other languages offer 12 to 18 hours of course work a week, the standard academic week for CLIP is 25 contact hours per week, with the same professor. This gives students a substantial amount of in-class time with one instructor who can focus on an integrated language program.” That’s pivotal for people who have the time to devote to the workload,” says Oliver Mann, an instructor both at CLIP and in standard English language courses. “CLIP really helps them manage their time, because in college classes freshmen, probably immigrant and non-immigrant, have to spend a lot more time on reading and homework.”


While traditional English classes often focus on isolated lessons in grammar and English, in the CLIP program each semester’s course is thematic, with professors developing introductory-level courses in their area of expertise. All reading, writing, speaking and grammar instruction is focused around the texts students read related to that theme. “We make content the umbrella under which the language learning fits,” said Oppenheim, although she added, “We are not pretending to teach, say, history or science per se, but using it as a broad-based concept to teach English.”

Sirina Gouni, a CLIP student, praised this approach. She said she found her theme -- American Folk -- fascinating, and the program, she said, made her “feel very confident as a college student.” The more intensive nature of CLIP, said Yennifer Santana, provided her with the opportunity to do more demanding work, such as researching papers, writing numerous essays and reading books.


Standard English language programs cost as much as regular classes, roughly $2,000 full-time per semester at the four-year campuses and $1,400 per semester at the community colleges. The classes do not count toward graduation though, which means, for the most part, students learning English spend one or two semesters of their financial aid before taking a course toward graduation. Funds for CLIP, on the other hand, come largely from the government, so students pay only $180 per semester for 25 hours a week of class time. “Less than 10 percent comes from student fees,” said Gil Gerena, CLIP director for New York City College of Technology.


After 12 years, CLIP is now serving over 3,000 conditionally admitted CUNY students and seems to have finally shed the “experimental” label.

But it still faces challenges. One of the greatest drawbacks for some CLIP students is their detachment from many of the “regular” students. Some do not even attend classes on their school’s main campus. Borough of Manhattan Community College’s Language Immersion Program, for example, has been located a 140 blocks from the downtown campus on 125th Street in an effort to keep a presence for the college uptown.

Another major problem CLIP faces is one it shares with other English-language programs at CUNY. “I think the biggest challenge is the very low salaries for teachers,” says Balleisen, who is CLIP’s primary advocate at the Professional Staff Conference, the CUNY faculty union. The CLIP instructors, she explains, are considered part- time even though they spend more than twice as much time in the classroom as full-time CUNY faculty.

When CLIP started, its teachers received a higher salary than a starting New York City public school teacher with a master’s degree. Today, according to Balleisen, “this situation has reversed quite dramatically.”

In general, CUNY has a wonderful problem on its hands – a surplus of qualified, motivated immigrant students who need a small additional initial investment before they can reap continuing long-term benefits for the New York City community. More intensive language learning programs like CLIP can help fill the gap, if the City University agrees takes the steps to strengthen it.

An immigrant from Bangkok, Thailand, Chaleampon Ritthichai is the editor of The Citizen. 

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