Bethany Fallon is an instructor in the English Language Center who runs the International Community Bridge Program that pairs incoming Drexel international students with community members in Philadelphia.
The Triangle: Describe your program. When did it begin?
Bethany Fallon: It’s called Intercultural Community Bridge Program, or just “Community Bridge,” as we call it. It’s an English Language Center Program that began last year. With the [International] Gateway students, they have the grades to get into Drexel, but they don’t have the English skills just yet. So what they do is head down to the ELC and spend three terms with us. So the first term they take all ELC classes. And then we baby-step them into Drexel, where they take Drexel classes. By the winter term they’ll still take reading, listening and speaking, but then they’ll take a math class. But the Drexel classes they are taking, it’s just Gateway students. Once they fulfill their requirements with the program — that means they have to have regular attendance with the Community Bridge Program once a month, but we encourage them to spend more time together if they can — they have to pass all their classes, maintain a certain GPA, and they also have to get a specific score on an English language test. If everything is good, they will start Drexel University that next fall as fully matriculated freshman students, and they’ll already have had credits.
TT: How do Gateway students become involved with Community Bridge?
BF: It’s very simple. For Gateway students, this is a mandatory part of the program. They must participate in this. We try recruiting people, cold calling people; word of mouth is very helpful. When community members contact me, I get in touch with them and set up a time to talk on the phone and meet in person because I want to make sure I go over everything with them. Then after that I send them a link to an interest form, and so they fill that out and we match people based on their schedule and their interest. We know schedules change and all that. If you know that you’re generally free on Saturdays and Wednesday evenings and you love history, politics and football, then we’re going to put you with somebody that has that same availability and interest. And I meet with every single professional staff member, faculty member or community member in person before I put them in a group. We create about 23 to 26 community families. So it’ll be three Gateway students, four matriculated students, and then we’ll have the community members, faculty or professional staff there.
TT: How do the community members feel after working with these students?
BF: It’s learning on all sides. Everybody is learning something new. What a lot of the community members said is that one of the things they got from the program is getting out of their comfort zone and that they’re better community leaders now. They’ve said, ‘I’ve never done anything like this before, and now I feel so much more confident.’ One of my friends that I roped into the program said that this has really helped her at work because she said she feels like she can speak to anyone. One of the major goals was that everyone learn something. Everybody’s an expert, everybody has something to share, and we want our Gateway students to be able to feel like an expert and hear and teach them things as well.
TT: What was your inspiration for starting the program?
BF: One of the things I noticed with my students was when they would go home and just speak their native language, they were really, really stunted. And another thing I noticed was that students that didn’t participate were the ones a lot more prone to depression and all those other issues that come with being far away from home. And I just think everywhere is a classroom, so if you’re going to be living here to participate, take part in everything and take advantage of this incredible experience that you’ve got. With our Gateway students, the majority are from mainland China, and so they get here and it’s the first time away from home for some of them. In the program they think, ‘Some of them speak my language; some of them are from my country.’ But again, they really assimilate themselves. It prevents them from achieving academically and really integrating into the community.
I started this program, and I wanted to make sure that they were getting exposure and engaging with everybody — community members, students, faculty, international staff, and the fully matriculated. … I just wanted them to be able to practice speaking English in a really casual setting. In class they’re constantly being told, ‘No, this is wrong, that’s wrong.’ They’re not an expert, so this gives them the opportunity to be the expert, to tell people, ‘Hey, this is my country. These are the things I enjoy doing.’ And they can do them comfortably, casually, and not have to worry if they’re using the past tense correctly.
TT: How did the first year of the program go?
BF: It was really successful. We had a few little hiccups here and there. We figured out a couple of things we’d never really expected to do, mainly how they communicate through email. Our Gateway students aren’t used to that, so that was definitely a difficult thing. But now they are prepared to answer their emails when they start Drexel as freshmen this year. Otherwise it’s truly been a lovely experience for everybody involved. We’re doing it again obviously this year. We’re still in the process of recruiting. We still need a few more people to join. We’ll have about 75 Gateway students this year.
TT: What feedback do you get from students who went through the program last year?
BF: A lot of the feedback is, ‘At first we were very, very shy, and it was a little awkward. But then I really did improve with my English skills, and I really have made friends and I’m going to continue being friends with these people, and they really helped me figure things out at first.’ So a lot of them said it was very, very helpful; they did achieve the goals they started out with. Some of them, because [Community Bridge] is mandatory, they were a little upset about that. But then they tell you in the next breath, ‘If it’s not mandatory, I’m not going to do it.’ So even the ones who didn’t like the mandatory aspect of it did well. ‘You know, it definitely helped me with my speaking ability, and it really helped me to understand why Americans do the things they do.’
TT: What are some goals you have for this coming year?
BF: I have the “caring-sharing” goal. All I want is for these students to have a support system. I want them to make friends, feel more at ease and just more prepared to start Drexel. To say, ‘I am comfortable navigating my way around the city. I’m not afraid of going certain places. I don’t want to just stay in my dorm. I want to go out and meet new people. I want to learn from other people.’ Those are just the goals that they have. I want them to feel more at ease, more comfortable. If they have some sort of issue, if they have some sort of problem, they have people they can go to and talk to about it.
Triangle Talks is a weekly column that highlights members of the Drexel community.