Oberlin, U.N. Collaborating on Pre-Collegiate English Immersion Program


Photo by Chris Lee

President Carmen Twillie Ambar spoke to the U.N. General Assembly in Carnegie Hall on Dec. 2.

International students from the class of 2027 onwards will have the opportunity to participate in an eight-week long English language immersion program in the summer before their matriculation. The program is set to launch next summer.

Oberlin is currently developing the program in collaboration with the United Nations Institute for Training and Research and the Global Foundation for the Performing Arts. While students will attend the program in Oberlin, they may thereafter pursue their higher education at any other UNITAR partner school. The motto of the program is “learning English to learn in English.”

Oberlin requires international students whose primary language or whose language of instruction in secondary school is not English to submit language proficiency scores from TOEFL, IELTS, or Duolingo’s English Test. According to Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences David Kamitsuka, students with TOEFL scores below 100 will have the opportunity to practice their skills in a hands-on format through the English for Speakers of Other Languages program. In the morning, students will learn English via a curriculum currently being designed and then spend the afternoon learning about the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Kamitsuka is currently leading the effort to design the program.

“If you look at the Oberlin Arts and Sciences curriculum, about 52 percent of our courses are focused on one or more of those Sustainable Development Goals,” Kamitsuka said. “Morning will be immersive language study, afternoons are using that language, whether it’s reading, speaking, listening, writing, to study about those goals together.”

Students will live and dine on Oberlin’s campus for the duration of the program. They will study five days a week, with Wednesdays and Sundays off for potential field trips in the area.

According to the memorandum of understanding between Oberlin, UNITAR, and GFPA, programming for the partnership will be developed in three sectors: pre-collegiate, like the ESOL program; collegiate programs for when students commence their higher education; and special projects such as the Friday, Dec. 2 concert for the U.N. General Assembly. President Carmen Twillie Ambar spoke to the Review about ongoing discussions with the U.N. on the pre-collegiate and collegiate programs currently in development. While the ESOL program is set to launch next year, Oberlin is also in the process of making broader changes to its admissions process and standard curriculum.

“I think there are two things that I would say are happening,” President Ambar said. “Not only the work and creation of English [for Speakers of Other Languages], but also the admissions and recuriting procces to Oberlin in the College and the Conservatory. We’re in discussions with the U.N. about how to recruit through the different missions and what that will look like, how that process will work and so on. I think that’s equally as important as the English [for Speakers of Other Languages] program. What we are trying to do with that program is really to align the curriculum with the 17 developmental goals that the United Nations has laid out as their center of work. I think we’re hitting 12 of them.”

President Ambar added that decisions about the size of the program and several curricular specifics are still being deliberated. Some of these decisions will depend on the number of applicants to Oberlin’s existing programs. Still, Conservatory Dean William Quillen is excited about the potential for growing the ESOL program in future years. He expressed hope that in the years to come, the program may be expanded to include high school students in their penultimate or final years of study to help them navigate opportunities in higher education. 

GFPA President Benjamin Woodroffe spoke to the Review about the importance of the ESOL program to the broader mission of the partnership between Oberlin, UNITAR, and GFPA.

“A major part of our partnership and commitment is that we want students in various parts of the world to learn from other students and other educational institutions in other parts of the world,” President Woodroffe said. “One part that comes with transnational education is language training and language capacity. What we are really excited to be working on with Oberlin is to build preparatory English as a second language intensives prior to [students] commencing at Oberlin or other school, so that they’ve got a sense of where they’re going. They’ve got a cultural understanding of what life is like in the U.S.; [they] have a rapid-fire immersion experience in English to give them the best prep they can possibly have to then go and do their undergraduate degree.” 

Even as they develop the ESOL program, Oberlin’s senior leadership team is excited about the potential for further curricular projects and connecting with peer institutions. Quillen spoke about possible internship and Winter Term opportunities in addition to developing post-graduate relationships with other institutions partnering with the U.N.

“As we look ahead, some of the conversations that we’ve had have to do with what would it mean to perhaps, in partnership with the U.N., develop even more sorts of co-curricular opportunities for our students,” Quillen said. “Maybe that’s internships, maybe that’s Winter Term opportunities, maybe that’s working in partnership with the U.N. and U.N. expertise as we think about the kind of offerings here on campus. One of the big things that we’ve been talking about too has to do with … avenues for working in partnership with some of the consortium universities globally who are operating at the graduate level, what would it mean to say [that] maybe there’s programs open to Oberlin students as well as to students from around the globe, that pair intensive undergraduate study at Oberlin with a paired graduate level program at one of these top-tier global universities.” 

Kamitsuka echoed Quillen’s hopes for internships, mentioning that Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications for the U.N. Melissa Fleming, OC ’86, will be visiting campus next semester.

“The possibilities for Oberlin students are as expansive as the globe itself,” Kamitsuka said. “We really want to take advantage of this opportunity because we know Oberlin students are precisely the kind of people [the U.N.] want to be forwarding the pursuit of things like the UN’s Our Common Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals.”