By Nicole Wexler
“Students, professors, and other departments don’t seem to know much about PALS. It’s such a focused program within Rutgers, within the English Department, that not many people know us.” So says Dr. Veena Kumar, the new Director of the Program in American Language Studies (PALS). She is making it her mission to ensure that people, both in the Rutgers community and beyond – way beyond – are aware of what PALS has to offer.
PALS teaches both American culture and the English language to international students, in intensive full-time sessions. The program has received students from more than eighty different countries, from Mexico to China and almost everywhere in between. They range in age and in motives for coming to Rutgers to study English: some are college-bound, but almost half of PALS pupils are already working professionals. “English is the language of commerce and technology,” says Dr. Kumar. “Anyone aspiring to make a mark in the international professional world needs English.”
As the author of two books and several publications on teaching the English language, Dr. Kumar’s research interests include designing and implementing technological strategies for language learning. Her education and work experience has spanned Europe, Asia, and America. She feels she is a true citizen of the world, and says, “My long and diverse international exposure has accustomed me to multi-lingual, multi-cultural environments.” Directing a similar program in Paris taught her that the winning recipe for a program like PALS is a firm foundation in academic success. “I strongly believe that enrollment numbers follow excellence,” she says, “so my first focus has been to strengthen the program academically.”
Since coming to PALS in July of 2004, she has restructured the curriculum and implemented new teaching methods. “These changes would not have been possible without the constant guidance and support of the English Department and the Writing Program,” she says. She expects her faculty to have the same commitment to innovative teaching techniques that she does, and has created orientation and mentoring programs to assist them. The reward for these new approaches has been an increase in enrollment numbers.
Small changes can make a difference too. For example, because the PALS program must compete with similar programs worldwide, they now make it a priority to answer all email inquiries within twenty-four hours. Even housing arrangements for participants have been improved. Thanks to the aid of Vice President for Student Affairs Gregory S. Blimling, PALS students now have fixed accommodations on Livingston campus instead of being scattered to vacant dorm rooms.
One important component of the PALS program is introducing the students to American culture, through course material, cultural events, and field trips. Current immigration policies make it difficult for foreign students to come here to study, and American English language programs face keen competition from similar programs in England, Canada, and Australia. “People choose to come to the USA for a reason,” says Dr. Kumar, “I think it’s our responsibility to provide them with a direct and memorable experience of American culture and the American value system.”
Under Dr. Kumar, the key word of PALS is personalization. Every student has a tailored schedule, which Dr. Kumar herself constructs. Their schedule is rigorous: Monday through Friday from 8:30 until 2:30 they attend classes on subjects such as reading-writing, grammar, accent modification, and discussion. Regular courses are followed by a full hour of tutoring, which is customized to the needs of each individual student. According to Dr. Kumar, “Language education is learner-specific rather than course-specific. Every student requires individual attention.” Dr. Kumar herself works directly with the students, often acting as their advisor and friend. “It’s a very student-oriented and supportive program. Our students love being here and we love having them here.”
PALS at Rutgers