Olga Acosta, an ALI student from Colombia, studies with a language instructor in between classes at Royall Hall.

Applied Language Institute celebrates 20 years

One of the Midwest's largest ESL programs welcomes more than 800 students each year

When it began 20 years ago, the UMKC/Penn Valley Community College English as a Second Language (ESL) program consisted of four courses. Today, the Applied Language Institute (ALI) – a joint program between the UMKC College of Arts and Sciences and Metropolitan Community College (MCC) – is the largest ESL program in the Midwest, teaching more than 800 students each year. With its UMKC offices aptly located in two houses (5301 Rockhill Rd. and 5310 Harrison St.), ALI has been a supportive home away from home for thousands of UMKC students.

For Erdem Demiroz, a Master of Arts in Curriculum and Instruction student from Turkey, this sentiment rings true.

"If someone asked me how to describe the Applied Language Institute, I would definitely say that ALI is a huge family with members from all around the world," said Demiroz, who will begin the Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction in the summer. "ALI helped me adjust to education, social and cultural life in the U.S."

From zero to fluent in no time

Through six levels of 41 courses at UMKC and 45 courses at MCC, ALI prepares international students for undergraduate and graduate study. Upon completing the sixth level, ESL students can take an English-language proficiency test to become eligible for graduate study.

Because of the intensity of the program - students attend 26 hours of ESL classes each week - students often go from speaking no English to speaking fluent English within a year.

Olga Acosta is one such student. Before enrolling in ALI in 2009, Acosta did not speak any English. As a journalist in Cali, Colombia, she met several high-profile individuals, including Bill Gates – whom she regrets not being able to interview in English.

After a year of taking ALI courses and practicing English speaking and grammar with faculty and classmates, Acosta speaks English fluently. Soon, she hopes to return to her journalism career in Columbia - and perhaps interview Bill Gates.

A bridge among cultures

In addition to offering an intensive English program, ALI teaches students about new cultures while helping them preserve their respective cultures.

"Our quality of instruction makes us unique," said Monica Mingucci, ALI director. "We see our students more as very special clients. Each one of our students is very important, and we don't expect our students to conform to the American way. Our faculty and staff are truly international - everyone has either lived or studied abroad, and everyone speaks different languages. The cross-cultural understanding we have in this department, you don't find in all ESL programs. That's the key to our success."

ALI's homestay program, for example, places more than 100 students in homes each year. It allows students to stay with an American family, improve their English outside the classroom and experience American culture.

Students also are encouraged to live in UMKC residence halls and attend events. Last fall, ALI students went to a Kansas City Royals baseball game, Worlds of Fun, a Halloween bonfire, a Thanksgiving dinner and ice skating at Crown Center.

A flexible community resource

To prevent peoples' outside jobs, families and other time constraints from standing in the way of education, ALI has focused on providing flexible programs. ALI offers regular semester programs, as well as partial semester programs to accommodate different academic calendars.

For the working adult immigrant population, ALI offers an evening program at Metropolitan Community College. ALI also offers community courses at area businesses and organizations.

"It's inspiring - you'll see students who are working three jobs and refugees who are just trying to make ends meet," Mingucci said.

ALI also serves the local student population, faculty and staff through cross-cultural and language acquisition courses.

Quick Five: Erdem Demiroz, Interdisciplinary Ph.D. student

1. Why did you enroll in the Applied Language Institute?

In 2008, I enrolled in the Applied Language Institute through a special four-month exchange program with Trakya University in Turkey. In 2009, after six months in Turkey, I returned to the Applied Language Institute and began working toward my Master of Arts in Curriculum and Instruction at the UMKC School of Education. In the summer, I will begin my Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction.

2. How has this program helped you adjust to life in the U.S.?

Adjusting to a new education system is not easy for international students. ALI helps us learn what the U.S. education system expects of us and how it works.

Moreover, ALI helps international students adjust to America’s social and cultural life. ALI organizes activities for its students, such as picnics, sport activities and parties. This helps students experience the American lifestyle, and gives us a chance to meet with students from different countries. Also, ALI collaborates with various cultural groups in Kansas City to engage students with American culture.

3. What were some of your favorite ALI courses?

In addition to general ESL training, I attended TOEFL and pronunciation courses, which were quite helpful.

4. What ESL level did you begin at and what level are you at now?

At the beginning of the semester, ALI gives students a test, which determines their level in reading, vocabulary, speaking and listening, grammar and writing. My listening and speaking skills were level two at the beginning, and all other skills were level three. I completed the fourth-level ESL program in the 2009 summer semester, and received a good TOEFL score.

5. What other UMKC organizations are you involved in?

In addition to being the Turkish Student Coordinator at the Applied Language Institute, I am a graduate teaching assistant at the School of Education and the president of the UMKC Turkish Student Association.

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"The cross-cultural understanding we have in this department, you don't find in all ESL programs. That's the key to our success."

Monica Mingucci
Applied Language Institute Director

Erdem Demiroz, a Master of Arts in Curriculum and Instruction student from Turkey, says ALI has helped him adjust to life in the U.S.

Students attend a prep class for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

ALI students watch a Kansas City Royals baseball game.