Magic and Popcorn at Intensive English Program Movie Night

On Wednesday our ESL students experienced what nerds across the world have known for years: Harry Potter brings people together. Just like magic! The newest installment of the Harry Potter movie franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, did just that. We held our annual Intensive English Program movie night this week, and students from all of the major language families represented in our program settled in with boxes of popcorn to watch the blockbuster. The movie drew the perfect balance of laughs and gasps from students and teachers alike, with larger-than-life special effects and the ridiculous capers of its magical creatures. By the time the credits rolled, we were all thoroughly enchanted.

Author: Savannah Burch, Enrollment Coordinator

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Alumni Spotlight: Vítor Andriotti

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Vitor2_cropAs a kid in Brazil, Vítor was always surrounded by American culture. Most of the movies, TV series, cartoons, comics and games he enjoyed were produced by English speaking countries. When he was 14, he became interested in software development and realized that most of the related terminology and coding were in English. Once he defined his career interests in computer engineering, he knew he had to be fluent in English. He felt that the only way to achieve fluency was by being exposed to an environment that required him to speak English.  That’s why he decided to study abroad and, in his second year of undergraduate studies, applied for a government scholarship program in his country, Ciência Sem Fronteiras (Science Without Borders). He had to choose the country where he wanted to study and three preferred universities within that country. The program offered a full scholarship to study the language of the country of choice for six months, and then spend one year as a visiting student at a university there. “I chose the U.S.A. because it is one of the most advanced countries in computer engineering. Since Rice University was ranked among the best universities in my area of study and it is a prestigious institution, I chose it as one of the three preferred schools. I was thrilled when I received my letter of acceptance!”

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Vítor (fifth from the left) with the Ciência Sem Fronteiras group in front of Rice’s iconic Lovett Hall

That’s how three years ago, Vítor started in level 5 of our 6-level Intensive English Program. The program helped him improve his writing and speaking skills, which have proven essential to his success as a software engineer and an entrepreneur. After completing our core program, he went on to take Advanced Level courses. The Oral Presentation class was particularly helpful for Vítor, since it required him to do more advanced and elaborate presentations every day, which elevated his language proficiency to a much higher level. It was at this point that he noticed he was thinking in English, as opposed to thinking in Portuguese and then translating before speaking. When he completed the Intensive English Program, Vítor was not automatically admitted into the Rice University Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. He had to take the TOEFL, a test of English proficiency, and he passed with flying colors. So he spent a year as an exchange student in that department, during which he took classes with renowned professors and had the opportunity to work collaboratively on various hands-on projects. At the end of his exchange program, he was encouraged to seek internship opportunities. During a career fair hosted by Rice University, he was invited for an interview with Alert Logic, a cloud security provider, for an internship as a software engineer.  After a few weeks of eager expectation, he was selected for the position. “I accomplished a goal that I wasn’t expecting to accomplish; I took my first steps towards my career path as an engineer.”

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Vítor (third from the left) with two of his Brazilian classmates in Space Center Houston (NASA)

Before deciding to participate in the exchange program, Vítor wasn’t sure if the experience would be worth delaying his graduation one year and a half. “I didn’t know how much I would benefit from this experience at the time. If you have the same doubts I had, I would advise you to just go for it. Studying English at Rice isn’t just about learning English, which of course you will; it is an experience that changes you deeply. You will interact with people from all over the world with different backgrounds and views and engage in conversations about politics, religion and cultural differences. You are going to make lifelong friends from several countries and open a new range of opportunities for your career at the same time.”  Vítor was impressed by Houston’s size and diversity. He very much enjoyed the wealth of choices of restaurants, coffee shops, museums, theaters and various cultural activities that gave him a taste of the American and Texan cultures, but also allowed him to savor cultures from all over the world. The low student-teacher ratio allowed for a closer relationship with teachers, who didn’t skimp on tips for living in the U.S.

Today, Vítor is working as a remote contractor for Alert Logic, the very same company that offered him an internship a year ago, and finishing his computer engineering degree at the same time. Between work and study, he somehow found the time to launch a startup company! Before coming to the U.S. to study, he and his classmates had founded Redware, a provider of website hosting and email solutions. Once he was back in Brazil, the young founders changed the company’s mission to respond to their clients’ needs for an innovative way of measuring employee satisfaction. They are currently developing a software tool to help organizations monitor how their employees are feeling on a daily basis, which in turn impacts productivity. They officially opened their office last year. Eventually, Vítor would like to complete an MBA in Project Management. Besides his professional plans and aspirations, he would also like to learn other languages. He already started learning Japanese and would like to study French next.

Author: Milagros Lugo-Amador, Assistant Director

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Alumni Spotlight: Erhan and Reyhan Basaran

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Erhan, Reyhan and son_cropWhen they came to the Rice University Intensive English Program, Erhan and Reyhan were newly married. Besides getting used to their new life as a married couple, they were both trying to adjust to life in Houston and dealing with the stress of preparing to take the TOEFL and GRE exams. For both of them, the main reason behind attending our Intensive English Program was to eventually be accepted at Rice University for graduate studies. This was the right move, since it gave them the opportunity to make connections with the right people in Rice University’s Departments of Earth Science and Religion, respectively. The young couple wanted to pursue graduate degrees from Rice because it is one of the best ranked universities in the U.S. Erhan had a B.S. in Geophysical Engineering from Turkey and had received a full scholarship from the Turkish Petroleum Corporation to continue his education in the U.S. Reyhan came to Houston with a B.A. and an M.A. in Religion, both obtained in Turkey. Today, Erhan has an M.S. in Subsurface Geoscience from Rice University and is working as a processing geophysicist at Turkish Petroleum. Reyhan is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Religion Department at, you guessed it, Rice University. She is about to complete her doctoral dissertation. They are both very proud of their Rice education.

Joining the Intensive English Program at Rice gave them the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. The program also helped them “overcome the difficulties of cultural shock”. For instance, the differences in the attitudes regarding personal space were disconcerting at first. The new student orientation they took before starting their English classes really helped them understand the American culture. Their teachers encouraged them to participate and even joined them in countless cultural and recreational activities, both on- and off-campus. They were introduced to students and families from Houston who were native English speakers, to practice and sharpen their language skills. Regarding the city, Erhan says, “Houston is a multicultural and always dynamic city that is great for a student to live in. It is also a dream place for an earth scientist, being the energy capital of the world. As a geophysicist, I had the great chance to work with some of the major oil companies in the world. Being a Rice graduate, people from the energy industry always showed me respect.” Erhan did several internships with oil companies as well as with Rice’s Earth Science Department. He feels that the experience he gained from living, studying and working in Houston is something no amount of money could buy.

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Erhan (third from the left) and Reyhan (fourth) enjoying a meal with their classmates and teacher

Living in Houston has been an unforgettable experience for Reyhan. “Adjusting to a new country, language and culture was not as hard as I had thought it would be. However, building a social life was not an easy process. Houston’s multicultural quality conveniently enabled me to fit into this new environment.” What she loves most about Houston is the harmony of people with different ethnicities, languages and cultural backgrounds. She never felt like a foreigner here. On the contrary, she felt like a welcome part of Houston’s community. These days Reyhan lives in Turkey, where she is conducting field research, but the Ph.D. dissertation she is working on brings her to Houston often.

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Erhan and Reyhan visited the Grand Canyon, in Arizona, while they were studying in the program

Once they were well on their way to attaining their academic and professional goals, Erhan and Reyhan had a son, who is now almost two years old. Someday, Erhan would like to be part of a group that discovers a major oil or gas field in Turkey. Reyhan wants to become an associate  professor of religion at a prestigious university in Turkey. And speaking of future plans, the couple has some advice for students who plan to study in the U.S.: “Never ever hesitate to come to the U.S., especially Houston and Rice University. We are sure that you will find more than you expect. You will have friends from everywhere in the world. You will have the best education and experience and you will never regret it. We came to Houston as husband and wife, but then our family has become bigger with a son and a lot of good friends, both in Houston and all over the world.”

Author: Milagros Lugo-Amador, Assistant Director




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Alumni Spotlight: Michiyo Mikage

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If you had known Michiyo when she was studying in the Rice University Intensive English Program, you wouldn’t have been surprised to know that she had been a radio and TV personality in Japan for 12 years. Her bubbly and lively personality is indeed perfect for a career in media and entertainment. She used to appear on all kinds of programs related to news, travel, food, sports, music, and even documentaries. She moved to Houston when her husband was relocated for work, but didn’t feel confident in her English skills. Most of the Japanese friends she had already made in Houston suggested she take English courses in the ESL Program at Rice. Six years ago, she started in level 4 of our 6-level core program. “The first week of the session”, she recalls, “I realized that I could hardly understand what the teachers and classmates were saying. Seven weeks later, I was surprised that I could talk with them naturally, without hesitation.”  By the end of each level she saw her English skills improve. Michiyo went on to complete level 6 and two additional sessions at the Advanced Level, where she focused on specific skills, such as listening, speaking, reading, writing, vocabulary and pronunciation. One session, her outstanding performance was recognized with a merit-based scholarship awarded by the program.

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Michiyo with two classmates and friends

Not surprisingly, Michiyo easily made friends with teachers and classmates from all over the world. She enjoyed preparing Japanese dishes for her classmates and friends. She was surprised that all of them loved edamame, but not all of them liked seaweed or raw fish. In turn, they taught her about their different cultures. This opened up a whole new world for her. She was fascinated with the various customs, foods and points of view of her classmates, especially the Arabic and Turkish, since she seldom had a chance to meet people of these nationalities in Japan. She also remembers all the activities the teachers organized to motivate students, including in-class games, singing and collaborative group work. In one class they even made a music video! (As you might suspect, this project was right up Michiyo’s alley.) She also has fond memories of the birthday parties that classmates organized for each other, which often offered a well-deserved break from their intensive studies. Drawing from her own experience, she has some advice for international students learning English in the U.S.: “Do not hesitate to interact with people. No one will laugh at your English as long as you make an effort to communicate.” The truth is most people actually admire in others the determination to learn a foreign language.

Michiyo currently is a stay-at-home mom and lives in Tokyo with her husband and two children. She has had her own blog since 2005 where, while living in Houston, she often shared her impressions of the city, the differences between the U.S. and Japan (from the astonishing to the hilarious) and her experiences as an English student in the U.S. These days she writes about her everyday life and her adventures as the mother of two young children.  So as not to lose the skills she acquired in our program, she has enrolled in a course at the NYU School of Professional Studies, Tokyo to brush up on her English skills. She starts next week! In the future, she wants to create infant massage classes for international new mothers in Japan. When she gave birth to her first child in New York, she joined an infant massage class where she connected with other foreign moms and exchanged information about baby care and going through new motherhood in the U.S. This was very helpful and comforting in a time when she felt anxious about having a baby in a foreign country with no family or support network. She would love to provide the same opportunity and welcoming space to others in the same situation. She shared with us that she would also like to volunteer as a tour guide for visitors to the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020. The classes she’s about to start to further polish her English will no doubt come in handy when she’s guiding English-speaking visitors through the city that is now her home.

Author: Milagros Lugo-Amador, Assistant Director

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ESL students admire art from their own countries at the MFAH


Houston is home to dozens of great museums, ranging from the educational (Museum of Natural Science) to the eclectic (Art Car Museum!). This week, our Intensive English Program students had the opportunity to visit the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, one of the largest and most widely recognized museums in the United States. On Thursday, students spent the day wandering through galleries featuring art from all over the globe, including several stunning pieces from their own countries: large prayer rugs from Turkey, intricate pencil drawings from Korea, and countless pieces of gold jewelry from the ancient Americas. The women of our group were impressed (and a little alarmed) at the size and weight of some of the earrings on display, while the men spent a lot of time studying the crowns and headpieces made of hammered metals from a broad range of cultures. One of the best parts about the MFAH is that Rice students, including our ESL students, can visit for free! Several students are already making plans to come back to visit their favorite pieces, and to view some of the exhibits we didn’t have time to see this time. With so much to see, they can come back dozens of times and still have new areas to explore.

Author: Savannah Burch, Enrollment Coordinator



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Alumni Spotlight: Natalia Laverde

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Before moving to Houston, Natalia used to work as a communication consultant and corporate photographer for the oil industry in Colombia. When her husband was relocated to the Bayou City for work nine years ago, she was determined to improve her English and searched for the best ESL program in town. Not only did she need it to be able to communicate in her new home, but she also had some professional goals of her own. She arrived in Houston with a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications and an MA in Organizational Communication, both from the University of La Sabana in Colombia. Natalia completed levels 4 to 6 of the Rice University Intensive English Program. Several years later, after returning to Colombia, she earned an MA in Social Anthropology from the University of Los Andes. To be accepted, she needed a certain level of English, since the program of studies was mostly in this language. All the articles and research she had to read were written in English. She felt very comfortable reading entire books and articles on anthropology and philosophy. Adding to the list of things she has accomplished in her second language, three years ago, Natalia published a bilingual version of her first children’s book (in Spanish and English, of course), a fable titled ¡Chuik, Tac, Chuik! or Frog’s Leg. “When you study another language”, she says, “you are broadening your cultural spectrum.” By publishing a bilingual book, she also managed to broaden her audience.

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“Frog’s Leg”, bilingual edition

Natalia ended up living in Houston for five unforgettable years. During that time, she made wonderful friends and connected with amateur and professional photographers. Before relocating to Houston she did analog photography, but then she discovered the marvels of digital photography while taking several workshops in the Glasscock School of Continuing Studies at Rice University and the Houston Center for Photography. English allowed her to communicate and create strong bonds with a fantastic community of photographers in Houston. These associations helped her grow as a photographer and have afforded her the opportunity of participating in several collective exhibitions in Houston. She stills belongs to a photographic group in Houston, which brings her back often for various projects.

Predisposed by her visual sensibility, one of the many things Natalia enjoyed about Texas was its vast plains. “Coming from a country where mountains are all around you, plains seemed to me very exotic and beautiful! I love the immensity of Texas and the Houston horizon and sky!” Actually, the Colombian photographer published a book of photos she took while living in Houston, titled Houston: Del sol a la luna (Houston: From the Sun to the Moon). She refers to this publication as her tribute to Houston, her second home.

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Natalia with her classmates and teacher

Currently Natalia has a photography studio where she develops projects for the private and the public sectors, as well as working on her own fine art photography. Her favorite subjects are nature and landscapes, both natural and urban. Her work has been shown in several exhibitions in the United States and Colombia. Consistent with her commitment to nature conservation, she belongs to the board of directors of Resnatur, a non-governmental organization that enables people to develop environmental and sustainable projects in Colombia. Natalia also volunteers there as a photographer and communicator. In the future, she sees herself focusing on her own natural reserve near Bogotá and applying photography and anthropology to work on social projects in her home country. Natalia isn’t finished broadening her horizons yet. Now that she is proficient in English, she would like to learn Italian.

Author: Milagros Lugo-Amador, Assistant Director

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Alumni Spotlight: José Adrián Viloria

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José Adrián is an architect by trade, and the Intensive English Program at Rice University helped him pursue his dream of becoming…a chef and restaurant owner! Here is how the story began for this Venezuelan entrepreneur: Even though he always had wanted to improve his English to get better professional opportunities, it was someone else who decided for José Adrián. Five years ago, at a time when he was unemployed and a little lost, a family member offered to pay for one year of English studies abroad. They picked the Rice University Intensive English Program and, when he came to visit Houston and Rice’s campus, it was love at first sight.

After taking the placement test, he was placed in level 4 of our six-level program. “I’ve got to be honest now, I thought it would be easy but after the first day of class I went back home crying. Although I was able to understand everything the teacher and my classmates said, I couldn’t speak fluently and I felt depressed. But quickly I got myself together and started to improve.” Once he realized how fast he was progressing he started to have new goals and dreams. He studied hard for the GRE and TOEFL and obtained excellent scores. He was admitted to a master’s degree program in construction management at the University of Houston. Unfortunately, he couldn’t afford the tuition and living costs, so he went back to Venezuela.

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José Adrián with classmates from his first session in the Intensive English Program at Rice

In José Adrián’s perception, “the magic” happened later. While studying here, he applied for an on-campus job at the Rice University Faculty Club. Students typically get jobs there as waiters, but he wanted to work in the kitchen, since his greatest passion has always been cooking. Everybody told him, “No way!”  This would be impossible, because the chef was very protective of her kitchen and very cautious when hiring. So he started to work as a waiter. He worked hard and showed his skills and good attitude, and one day the chef invited him to cook by her side. And now, the story’s happy ending: A couple of months after returning to his country, he opened his own restaurant, Guacamole Mexican Food. In only three years he opened three restaurants in different cities in Venezuela. “ESL at Rice is not only about what you learn in classes, it is a bunch of enriching experiences, if you really want to live them, to live the dream.”

José Adrián enjoyed everything about living in Houston, but one of his favorite things was walking everywhere. “Then I started to run, like Forrest Gump, which allowed me to get fit and healthier. The weather, the food, the lovely people that I met from different places…one part of my heart remains in Houston.” Actually, when asked where he sees himself in five years, he said: “In Houston. Why not? I beg life takes me back there, at least for a couple of days.” To international students considering studying English in the U.S., he says: “Do not even think, just go there. Take it seriously, learn, live and grow. There are no limits. If you choose to live such a wonderful experience, take advantage [of it]. Make it a turning point in your life.”

Author: Milagros Lugo-Amador, Assistant Director

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Alumni Spotlight: Ameera Aleissa

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Ameera photo now_cropEver since she was a little girl, Ameera was aware of the importance of English as a global language. When she decided to study information systems in her native Saudi Arabia, she knew that most of the program would be taught in English, so she searched for courses to improve her command of the language before college. She chose the Rice University Intensive English Program because of its reputation and environment. She completed levels 4 to 6 of the six-level program plus the Advanced Level. Then she went back home and obtained a bachelor’s degree in management information systems from Prince Mohammad bin Fahd University, graduating with honors.

For Ameera the most important thing when she came to us almost six years ago was improving her English communication skills. “Having good communication skills helps in reducing the barriers erected because of language and cultural differences. I became more comfortable when communicating with others [in English], more confident and more outgoing.”  Besides helping her improve her communication skills, the program also introduced her to Houston’s cultural activities and gave her the opportunity to meet people from many different countries and learn about their cultures. She loves Houston and its people so much that she considers the city her second home!

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Ameera with two of her (still) closest friends from the Program

Ameera is currently working as a business system analyst in the Power Systems Department at Saudi Aramco, one of the biggest energy companies in the world. Because this is an international company, they do most of their business in English so Ameera applies her acquired skills and knowledge every day. In the future, she sees herself having more management responsibilities and taking on new challenges.

To those who are considering studying English in the U.S., Ameera says: “Go for it!” She states that many employers seek the wide range of knowledge students get from studying in the U.S. Also, she thinks it helped make her a more independent person. “Studying in the Rice University Intensive English Program was one of the best experiences that I’ve had so far. I met a lot of great people and we’re still in contact. I learned a lot from everyone I met there. I became a better communicator, public speaker, and a good listener after studying in this program.”

Author: Milagros Lugo-Amador, Assistant Director

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Alumni Spotlight: Henry Quiroz

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Henry had a clear-cut goal when he decided to study English: he wanted to study and work overseas. With a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from the University of Chile and an MS in economics and finance from the University of Santiago, Henry’s professional interests lay in finance and he wanted to pursue an MBA.

Henry chose the Rice University Intensive English Program for several reasons, including its prestige, its location and the teacher-student ratio, that would allow him to have a very frequent and high-quality interaction with his teachers. He started in level 5 of our six-level core program and went on to complete an Advanced Level course as well. One session he was the recipient of a merit-based scholarship from the program. He thanks the program for helping him gain confidence in his English communication skills and for helping him attain IELTS and GMAT scores that contributed to his acceptance to several MBA programs, allowing him the luxury to choose. After six months of English studies, Henry started an MBA program at Imperial College London. First goal: Accomplished! Three years after starting English studies in our program, Henry now works as a portfolio manager at Liberty Mutual Insurance in London. Second goal: Also accomplished!

Besides the role it played in attaining his academic and professional goals, Henry also enjoyed other ways in which Rice’s ESL Program enriched his experience. “The program is a really nice place to make new friends and to meet very interesting people. The teachers are incredibly passionate, dedicated and professional. I did enjoy the quality of the program but, most importantly, the experience to meet such lovely and caring people at Rice.” Henry came to Houston with his family. His wife was also a student in our program. They made friends here that they are still in contact with, and have even had the chance to meet with them in London and elsewhere.

At one point while he was our student, Henry volunteered to speak briefly about his experiences in one of our new student orientations. He offered a word of caution to those students: “When people in the U.S. ask you ‘How are you doing?’ it is just a greeting. They’re not actually expecting you to tell them about your life!” He also has the following advice for those who are considering studying English in the U.S. “Have a reflection about what [studying English] really means to you. For me, to study at Rice was not just about learning English. It was my very first step to pursuing my dreams. I studied very hard, I pushed myself beyond my comfort zone and I embraced the challenge.” Henry also recommends that English students avoid speaking in their native language. “It is really tempting to spend time with other students who speak your mother tongue and inevitably that leads to massively reducing your practice. This does not mean that you should run away from students of your nationality, but if you have a more diverse group of friends with people from different countries then you are all required to speak English.”

Author: Milagros Lugo-Amador, Assistant Director

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Alumni Spotlight: Asya Ozkizilcik

Alumni Spotlight Header_thinAsya photo Now-1When she first came to the United States from Turkey, Asya was planning to stay for only six months. She wanted to improve her English but didn’t have a lot of time, so she needed to find a program that would give her the basics of the language quickly. “I heard that based on the quality of the instructors, the size of the classes, and the cost of tuition, the Rice University Intensive English Program is one of the best offered in Houston…where the living costs are also very decent compared to other big cities”. Speaking of costs, Asya was awarded one of the program’s merit-based scholarships, which helped offset the cost of her tuition.

While studying in our ESL Program, Asya decided to pursue graduate studies in the United States. “I had to take the required exams, such as GRE and TOEFL, to enter to a graduate program. This was the first time that I applied all of my language-related skills that I had gained from your program, and it was really exciting to see how I could use my knowledge…”. Now, a little over five years later, Asya is a PhD candidate in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at University of Arkansas, and focuses her research on biomaterial science and regenerative medicine.

Besides the quality of the instruction in the program, Asya really appreciated the multicultural aspect of Houston. “I think I like its diversity the most. Houston has a lot of people with different cultural and geographical backgrounds, and communicating and sharing ideas with those people teaches you to empathize and respect others’ decisions.” The vast array of cultural and recreational activities available was another feature of the city Asya enjoyed, including museums, parks, concerts and the theater. Asya is also thankful that the program introduced her to “friendly, kind, helpful and amazing instructors…who become your lifelong friends”.

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Asya with two of her classmates at the movies

As far as advice for international students who would like to study English in the U.S., Asya has several valuable recommendations. First, when choosing a program, “the cost of living can vary significantly from one place to another. Therefore, it is important to consider living expenses, location, transportation, and safety in that city before deciding on the language program.” For those students who start their studies in the U.S., “if you want to improve your language skills in a short time frame, you have to push yourself to meet and speak with students from other nationalities. If you have a chance, I would recommend having a roommate whose native language is not the same as yours.” Lastly, “practice, practice and practice! Even though it is frustrating to understand or speak a foreign language in the beginning, do not be afraid! Always remember that you will be learning another language, and this process is not easy. So, start being proud of yourself and always push your limits.”

Author: Milagros Lugo-Amador, Assistant Director

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