New PALS/ESL Director Expanding the Program’s Size and Reach

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Rutgers University–Newark has always been a crossroads, an intellectual hub in the center of New Jersey’s largest city, initially drawing students from various parts of the state, then from around the country and the world.

The campus has also been ranked by U.S. News and World Report as the most diverse in the U.S. for 18 years running. Students often refer to the collective student body as a “mini–United Nations.”

Many administrative and departmental components support and nurture this diversity, but perhaps none more so than RU-N’s Program in American Language Studies (PALS), the campus’ English as a Second Language (ESL) department.

PALS, an NCAS program that has served all of RU-N for more than 25 years, quietly goes about its business of preparing international students for the rigors of academic work in English, while also reaching out to the greater Newark community with a host of ESL classes.

Earlier this year, PALS got a new director when Kristi Bergman took the helm. Bergman, the former chair of the ESL and Modern Languages Department at Atlantic Cape Community College, has made it her mission to take RU-N’s successful, well-established ESL program and turn it into a powerhouse, and she has the blueprint to make it happen.

We sat down with Bergman recently to get her take on where PALS has been and where it’s going, and how she’s increasing the department’s impact on Newark residents.


Can you describe the student composition of the PALS program at Rutgers University–Newark?
We have 95 students currently, and just over half are of traditional college age (18–24). The largest group is Saudi, followed by students from various Asian countries and others from Europe, Latin America, and Africa. Three-quarters are here for full-time academic study, while others are here on tourist visas and can do part-time study for up to 6 months. The remainder are either citizens or green-card holders. Many of our students have undergraduate degrees from their home country and are interested in pursuing advanced degrees in the U.S., possibly at Rutgers-Newark.

How about your faculty?
This session, 80 percent of our faculty are native American English speakers from various regions of the U.S. with various accents. The remaining non-native English speakers are from other countries and allow our students to be exposed to those different accents. This session, we have one faculty member each from Iran, Haiti, Spain, Turkey, and Moldova.

When you arrived at RU-N in January, what shape was the PALS program in, and what did you set as your goals?
The program had a solid foundation. Where I thought we could add value was by revising the curriculum a bit, enhancing professional development for faculty, and doing an administrative overhaul.

Can you elaborate?
With the curriculum, we combined language strands (reading, writing, listening speaking) that were previously taught separately, and now have faculty collaborating across those strands to better align our goals and student-learning outcomes. The idea is to take an integrated approach to content so that, for instance, students can take what they learn in grammar class and apply it in writing class so their work has more meaning and continuity. We also shifted the emphasis by doubling the amount of time spent on writing and scaling back on reading, since reading strategies can be covered inside the classroom and students can then read and apply those strategies outside classroom.

And how have you enhanced professional development for faculty?
PALS faculty used to present to each other about what they were doing in their classrooms, which is important. But now we’re also sending faculty to conferences, widening their base of best practices and then having them share that knowledge with the department. I’ve also encouraged our faculty to submit proposals to conferences so they can be presenters. Not only does it enhance their careers and teaching, but it gets our department and the Rutgers-Newark name out there as well. All of this can only benefit our students in the end.

You also mentioned an administrative overhaul for PALS.
Yes. We’ve been revising how we maintain student records and have been updating our PALS computer lab. And since we’re growing at quite a clip, we’ve also added an administrator to support both the PALS program and our IELTS [International English Language Testing System] test center. International students looking to gain acceptance into U.S. universities must take either the IELTS or TOEFL test. We’re one of two IELTS Test Centers in New Jersey—of the 900 worldwide. We provide this service to both our students and those around the region and Canada, and our center is expected to double in traffic by the end of this year.

And your PALS program reaches many Newark residents as well?
Yes, and our PALS program is also expanding. We’re now offering semester-long Saturday courses and have been marketing this new community-based ESL program—which offers an integrated language experience to people from Newark and neighboring towns who are not seeking an academic degree but are looking for job opportunities and/or wanting to function better in their communities. We look forward to adding evening courses as the program grows. Our goal is to be a full-service program that gives back to the local community.

Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.
Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.