BANGOR, Maine — Maine is not exactly the place one might expect to find a Korean-born professor determined to rewrite the rulebook for foreign college students learning the English language.
But Changsu Lee, a mathematics professor at Eastern Maine Community College, is the creator of the school’s 3-year-old Integrative English Training Program, which places international students in classes with native English speakers in hopes they will pick up the language faster than through traditional study.
“I didn’t want to go to Los Angeles or New York, one of the bigger cities,” said Lee, who cites the high percentage of Korean-speakers in those areas as a barrier to learning English.
Traditionally, college-level students who do not speak English but want to study in the United States must pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL, exam before they can begin classes. Those who do not pass are sequestered into English as a Second Language, or ESL, courses until they can prove their profi-ciency in the language, at which time they may matriculate into regular college courses.
Lee sees a fundamental flaw in this system. Just as living in a large city with a diverse population negates a need to learn English for communication, he believes ESL courses that separate international and American students create communities in which English is a conversational afterthought.
With this in mind, Lee created the Integrative English Training Program, which places international students in regular college courses and facilitates daily conversation with native speakers. Students in the program typically spend six to nine hours a day in their first year taking ESL courses in addition to a class or two in math or science, subjects based on a universally understood language of numbers. After this introductory year, the students declare a major and enter a regular schedule of classes.
Lee’s program is based on his own difficulties learning English. He moved to the United States in 1994 and studied at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, where he earned a bachelor’s degree. His own frustration with the ESL program, combined with his need to speak English in order to interact with northern Mainers, helped spark an interest in overhauling the language-learning curriculum.
Lee said his fellow Presque Isle students “were dying to invite me over,” as he was one of the only international students at the time. Aside from the low percentage of international students, Lee said the typical Maine accent, which substitutes an “ah” sound for a more difficult to pronounce “r,” makes Maine an ideal location to learn English quickly.
Mygungji Choi, a student in the Integrative English Training Program, has had experiences similar to Lee’s. When she moved to Bergen County, N.J., Choi found herself in a world where English was not required even to open a bank account. According to Lee, Bergen County is approximately 50 percent Korean.
“I was in the U.S., but I couldn’t speak English for six months,” said Choi. “I felt like, ‘Am I really in America, or Korea?’”
Her work at EMCC has helped Choi become a member of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society and has landed her a summer internship in U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud’s office. She is also the secretary for the student senate and a contributing writer for the Eagle Eye, EMCC’s student newsletter. While her accomplishments are nu-merous, Choi’s academic record is common for students in the Integrative English Training Program, Lee said.
“It’s one of the tactics I use: scare tactics,” Lee said of his procedure for interviewing prospective students. By playing up the harsh Maine winters and rigors of the program, Lee said he is able to find the “hard workers and dedicated students” he desires.
Choi hopes to transfer eventually to a prestigious university where she could major in either economics or political science. Despite Lee’s intimidating interview process, Choi said she enjoys Maine and mentioned Bowdoin College as a possibility for her future.
“The first thing I said when I arrived here was, ‘This is heaven,’” Choi said.