In August, Saint Leo welcomed more than 1,000 incoming students at University Campus—the largest incoming group of students in the university’s 130-year history. About 50 percent of the incoming class are from Florida, and 19 percent are from international countries. Twenty-four percent of the incoming class are first-generation college students.
When international students enroll at Saint Leo University, they often have a working knowledge of English. However, they may not be fluent enough to understand academic courses in English, and they may be unfamiliar with American culture.
To combat those challenges, the Bridge Program was created at University Campus in 2012. The main goal of this program, according to its mission statement, “is to maximize students’ opportunities for academic success through assuring their balanced language development, personal and academic growth, and smooth transition and adaptation to their new academic culture.” The program offers a wide range of courses, including Composition and Grammar for Speakers of Other Languages, Introduction to American Culture and University Life, as well as classes that focus on reading, note-taking, and listening to lectures for non-native speakers of English.
Dr. Iona Sarieva is director of the Bridge Program. She recognizes that many international students need additional help to be successful, and believes that the Bridge Program offers students the assistance they require. Dr. Sarieva is experienced in teaching English as a second language training, English for academic purposes, and Russian as a foreign language. She holds a PhD in second language acquisition from the University of South Florida and worked as a Fulbright scholar at Sofia University in her native country, Bulgaria. She serves as academic advisor for the students, who are taught by a number of faculty members, including Nataliya Glover, English instructor, and Dr. Marcela van Olphen, professor of Spanish and Portuguese.
Since the program was created four years ago, it has served approximately 150 students. The initial group was from Saudi Arabia, but in years since students from 24 countries—representing Europe, Asia, Africa, Central America, and South America—have enrolled in the Bridge Program. Each semester, the group has at least one social event, such as a picnic or potluck dinner, so the students can integrate, socialize, and feel more comfortable in the university atmosphere. Many talented student-athletes have benefited from the program, including those on the tennis, swimming, soccer, and track teams.
Dr. Sarieva credits her multicultural career in large part to her own Bulgarian, Russian, and Greek heritage. She began studying languages and cultures and observed that in many ways they are “different yet the same.” She was inspired by work she once did for the Ellis Island Foundation on digitizing the Ellis Island immigration records, studying the details of those entering the country and learning who they were, what languages they spoke, where they were going, and from what they were escaping. When she looks at the United States, she is fascinated by the fact that “so many cultures came together to make the country what it is.”
Through her efforts, the Bridge Program enables cultures to come together in a similar way, and today’s Saint Leo is defined by that same rich diversity.