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Rhona Genzel

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Achievement Profile: Rhona Genzel
Advocating for University Intensive English Programs

Professor Rhona Genzel founded and directs the English Language Center at the Rochester Institute of Technology. As the ATESL representative to NAFSA's Council on Public Affairs, she is a persuasive advocate for university IEPs, and the vital role of international students in American academic settings, now placed at risk by new INS policies. The ESL MiniConference Online is proud to share Professor Genzel's remarks with our readers around the world.

Some Rhona Genzel links:

RIT English Language Center Home Page (
Getting Ready to Study English in the USA (
Culturally Speaking: Second Edition, co-authored with Martha Graves Cummings (Heinle & Heinle, 1994)
Experiment in International Living (
The Role of ESL Instruction in the U.S. Economy, by Robert Pesik (

An ESL MiniConference Online interview
with Rhona Genzel:

Rhona Genzel

What is your main ESL activity now? What are your principal projects, and what is on the back burner?

I am primarily involved in running a full-time intensive English program at the Rochester Institute of Technology. As director, my duties include maintaining high standards for our program, providing students with the courses they need, doing advising and recruiting students. I am currently also writing proposals for grants to get funding for students who cannot afford to come here.

Right now, I am involved in reviewing the new INS regulations and serving as the ATESL representative to NAFSA's Council on Public Affairs.

I am hopeful that my publisher will give the green light to a revision of Culturally Speaking. There are many changes and updates I would like to make to the book.

How did you start your ESL career? Who influenced your decision? What were some important formative experiences in the early stages of your development?

I think my ESL career has its roots in my experience as an exchange student to Spain with the Experiment in International Living. While at that time I had no idea I would become an ESL teacher, it provided me with the foundation for my future career. It gave me both a cross-cultural experienc and a form of language experience. It broadened my world view and provided the basis for my later study of Russian and my Master's, which focused on intercultural communication.

Technically, my ESL career started when I was working in the Training and Professional department at Xerox many years ago. It was after the riots in Rochester, and I was hired as part of the National Alliance of Businessmen's program to prepare poorly-educated inner city and migrant workers to improve their level of reading and writing so they could get jobs working in the factory. Because of my background as an English teacher and reading instructor with knowledge of two foreign languages--Spanish and Russian--I was sent to the Puerto Rican Forum in New York City for training in ESL, and asked to develop an ESL program for Xerox.

When I left Xerox five years later, I worked as an ESL instructor and assessment coordinator for the Adult Education program. I also taught ESL part-time at the University of Rochester. It was during this time that I realized there was no intensive ESL program in Rochester, so I approached each of the colleges in the area suggesting that they create one. RIT was the only school interested; they hired me on an hourly basis, and said, "Let's see what you can do."

It is now 22 years later. The ESL program serves between 60-100 students per quarter, and 60 students who graduate from RIT each spring with Bachelor's or Master's degrees have studied at the English Language Center.

In sum, my experiences living overseas, knowledge and love of other cultures, and being in the right place at the right time and not being afraid to try new things contributed to my career development.

What are the language/culture backgrounds with which you are most familiar as a teacher? Which ones are you familiar with from the perspective of a language learner yourself? What insights have you gained in how to meet the needs of English learners from these cultures and language backgrounds?

I have studied both Spanish and Russian; however, my studies in intercultural communication have given me a broad understanding and appreciation of the differences between cultures. I am a strong believer that people have different learning styles, and it is important to provide learners with a variety of ways to learn. I also think that students need to be oriented so that they understand how teaching is conducted in the United States, and how it may be different from teaching in their own countries. We all come with a set of expectations, so we can be disappointed, dismayed or confused. Students need to understand what the expectations are from a U.S. classroom teacher.

If you had to give several pieces of advice to a new ESL teacher, what would they be?


a. Be more formal when you first meet students. They are unaccustomed to the informality used in the United States.

b. Listen carefully and with complete attention to what students say when you speak with them one on one.

c. Tell students what they will learn and why.

d. Be open to new ideas, but stick to your guns if you believe a so-called "old" idea works.

What do you see as the most important issues facing the ESL/EFL teaching profession today?

The biggest issue right now is the changes with regard to INS regulations. Another issue is assessment and what effect the changes in the TOEFL exam will have on IEP curricula.

At the college level is the issue of awarding credit to international students for studying English, which is their foreign language.

Interviewed by Robb Scott

2003 ESL MiniConference Online