Eclipse Unites Incoming CESL Students

CESL students making eclipse viewers at student orientation

After moving from Syria two months ago to be with her son in Norman, Hana Al Kayal decided she needed to improve her English skills. Although able to understand and speak some English, she wanted to communicate more fluently with those around her.

“I couldn’t understand a lot of what I was hearing on television,” she said. “English is different in the United States.”

So, the 62-year-old enrolled in the Community English Program offered by the College of Professional and Continuing Studies’ Center for English as a Second Language (CESL).

Al Kayal is among a group of 40 students entering CESL’s community and academic programs this Fall. The students, representing several different languages including Korean, Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, French, Russian and Swedish, were introduced to the ins and outs of campus last week during a two-day orientation.

On the first day of orientation, students took advantage of the coinciding solar eclipse to break a few language barriers. Working in groups, the students used cereal boxes, paper and aluminum foil to make pinhole viewers. The students used their handiwork to view the solar eclipse later that afternoon.

As they worked together on their viewer, Alejandra Soruco of Bolivia and Gabriela Otalvaro of Columbia explained why they enrolled in the CESL academic program. Although both came to the United States knowing some English, they want to improve their skills before starting degree programs at OU.

“I want to learn how to speak really fast English,” Otalvaro said. “I want to stay here and study, and I’m also interested in learning about sororities and fraternities.”

“I’m still friends with the people I was in CESL with. It was one of the most memorable times of my life.”

Soruco said she’s also looking forward to studying at OU.

“I want to start at the university and study engineering,” she said.

Cory Northern, assistant director of CESL, said students like Al Kayal, Soruco and Otalvaro, students who know some English, are more common to CESL, but sometimes they see students who know no English at all.

“The students that attend our program may be true beginners of English without knowledge of the Roman alphabet. This is rare, but it does happen,” he said. “More commonly, they are advanced English learners on the cusp of matriculating at a university. Periodically, we even have graduate students or working professionals that are interested in sharpening their English skills.”

Northern said CESL attempts to target all international students and community members who might benefit from English language training. Students learn about the programs through social media, educational fairs and word of mouth.

“The latter is primarily how we acquire most of our students,” Northern said. “Historically, we have served two major populations, Arabic speakers and Chinese (Mandarin) speakers, though our largest population right now is Chinese. We’ve always attempted to diversify the language and cultural backgrounds of our student population, because it benefits the instructors, the students themselves and the community.”

During the program, students take courses in reading, writing, listening and speaking. Other courses include public speaking, American history and government, pronunciation and preparation courses for the IELTS and iBT TOEFL tests.

“Also while in class, students benefit from more personalized attention from the ESL instructor, and when cultural lessons or examples can be made, instructors will incorporate these so that students may get a better understanding of the country, state and university in which they find themselves.”

No matter their reasons for starting a CESL program, the end results are usually the same—a better understanding of both the English language and the American culture.

Luis Salvatierra, International Student Services Coordinator for the OU Housing office, was a CESL student almost 20 years ago. He told the orientation students it was a life-changing experience.

“Nineteen years ago, I was you. I did two sessions in CESL,” he said. “I’m still friends with the people I was in CESL with. It was one of the most memorable times of my life.”

More information about the Center for English as a Second Language can be found at

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Tami Althoff

Tami Althoff holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She is a reporter with more than 20 years’ experience working for newspapers, including The Oklahoman. She has covered everything from breaking news to local music and art. She loves sports, especially OU football and basketball games, where she often embarrasses her children by yelling too loudly.