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International students continue to flock to SSU’s Language Institute

  • After spending a semester abroad studying English at SSU's American Language Institute students from Hansung and Kanazawa University have arrived at San Francisco International Airport. Photo courtesy SSALI

By: Katherine Minkiewicz
July 27, 2018

The hair-raising feeling of excitement and adventure and the opportunity to completely immerse yourself in a foreign culture and language are all reasons why several international students will be studying English this fall at Sonoma State University’s American Language Institute. The center is still going strong after 40 years of teaching hundreds of eager students from around the world.

Started in 1979, the institute is a California State University wide program.

“Most CSU’s have an ALI part of a CSU wide initiative,” says Roberta Hodges, director for the American Language Institute at SSU.  

The Institute, also known as SSALI, is once again opening its doors for students who want to pursue the English language for either school, business or for simply the advantages of being bilingual and this semester students are coming from Japan, Taiwan, France and Saudi Arabia, just to name a few.

Around 37 or so students are starting the intensive 15-week long course this August and in addition to their core classes — grammar and reading comprehension, they will take English instruction classes such as communication, slang, idioms and English through movies.

And while these classes may sound fun, Katie O’Brien, international student coordinator for the program, says the course is engaging and rigorous.

“It is completely immersive in terms of their instruction. They are required to take up to 18 hours of English instruction and we offer up to 22 hours — core classes, fun classes and the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) preparation class, which is one of the two most applied exams used to assess English at a higher level,” O’Brien explained. “A lot of our students are students who either want to improve for business reasons or they want to attend an American or English speaking university.”

Not only do the students get to practice their English at school, but they also have the opportunity to practice with their host family through ISP, an international student placement organization that helps place students who are studying abroad.

“ISP has been around for about 25 years,” says Fran Russell, an ISP coordinator. “We help place students who are either going to SSU or the Santa Rosa Junior College… and we’ve handled students from all over the world”

Russell estimates since the program’s inception they have successfully placed thousands of students. Russell herself has even hosted numerous students, including girls from Venezuela, Taiwan and Japanese University students.

Families who choose to host with the program receive a $1,000 per month and in return students get their own private room, free Wi-Fi, laundry facilities and two meals a day. 

However, Russell says more often than not once a student is acclimated they start to go out on their own with friends instead of relying on meals from their host family.

“Once kids start to meet people they will venture out on their own and explore for example, going to Calistoga for (good) tacos,” Russell quipped.

Families also take students out on weekend day trips for a chance to see the local sights and explore Sonoma County and the natural beauty of the surrounding parks, something students often aren’t familiar with, save for the major metropolitan areas of San Francisco and Los Angeles. 

“We once took two girls to Muir woods and they were blown away,” Russell said, who mentioned most students express interest in touring parks instead of the city.

This semester some international students are organizing their homestay through ISP and about eight students have already been paired with a home. According to Russell, one is staying in Petaluma and will take the SMART train to SSU.

Yet, a couple students are still searching for a host family. One participant hailing from China is an 18-year-old pianist and Russell is hoping to find a home for him with a piano.

When asked of Russell why she believes the exchange of cultures is important, she said she believes it is a good way to build connectivity and to make the world a smaller place.

“It becomes something to remember and builds connectivity,” Russell said. “I was able to keep in contact (with one student). There was flooding in Japan and I was able to reach out and keep up on how they were doing.”

Hodges believes the program’s long-term success lies in student retention, continuing to have people who want to come to Sonoma County to study English.

O’Brien says the students who come have a high level of curiosity and drive.

“They recognize the importance of not only learning English, but in studying abroad,” O’Brien said.

For more information on the SSALI program, visit: