April 2007 issue

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The real America

Great scenery, plenty of cultural attractions, a safe environment and a low cost of living are just some of the factors that attract a growing number of language students to the lesser known inland states of the USA. Gillian Evans reports.

GMany of our students tell us that our small-town environment and midwestern location are appealing because they can get a sense of life in the ‘real’ America,” asserts Brad Van Den Elzen, Director of Foreign Students and ESL Programmes at the University of Wisconsin in Stevens Point, WI.

Kelly Franklin, Director of International Services at Maryville College in Maryville, TN, also mentions the “small town America charm” of Tennessee as well as the “natural beauty and rustic nature” of the countryside as being major draws for international students choosing their college.

Awesome scenery certainly abounds in the inland states of the USA. Wherever students choose to study, they are almost certain to be close to mountains, rivers and lakes, and plenty of opportunities for adrenaline-pumping outdoor activities. “Many of our students are amazed by the beauty of our surroundings,” states Van Den Elzen. “Wisconsin is largely forested and home to thousands of lakes and hundreds of rivers. Students who enjoy the outdoors thrive here.”

In Tennessee, Franklin says that their most famous extra-curricular activity is whitewater rafting, and the river that students generally frequent is the one that featured in the whitewater rafting events in the 1996 Olympic Games. “We’ve had students who came back to join our summer sessions just so they could go rafting again!” he states.

Ahad Shahbaz from Interlink in Golden, CO, describes their location as “a sportsman’s paradise”. Golden is located just 50 miles or so from the Rocky Mountains, giving students access to many recreational activities. “Coloradans are very health conscious, and recreational physical activities such as hiking, running and biking are a large part of their lifestyle here,” he relates.

The state is also great for snowsports, according to Laura Davis, Director of the Colorado School of English in Denver, CO. “[Colorado] boasts excellent resorts in the Rocky Mountains with some of the best skiing and snowboarding in the world at Vail, Aspen, Winter Park and Breckenridge,” she says. Denver itself, according to Davis, is “a gem of a city” with the second-largest performing arts complex in the USA, so its location offers students a perfect blend of city-based and countryside activities.

Missouri is another state that offers students an attractive mix of culture and the great outdoors. “We are in the heartland of the country,” says Valerie Heming, Director of the Intensive English Programme at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, MO, “which means we offer lots of outdoor activities like canoeing, caving, hiking and camping alongside our cities’ cultural attractions like opera, theatre, museums and amusement parks.”

Minnesota, too, can offer students a good range of leisure time choices. The state has over 10,000 lakes, according to Ann Mabbott, Director of the Centre for Second Language Teaching and Learning at Hamline University, which is situated in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul, MN. “Minnesota has a combination of a sophisticated, lively cultural [and] social scene in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul, together with tremendous outdoor opportunities,” she asserts. On the cultural side, she highlights “a lively arts scene with many galleries, museums and outdoor arts festivals, music of all kinds, and more theatres than any US city except New York”.

Franklin is keen to point out that even in the USA’s so-called “small towns” there is plenty to do. “’Small town’ in the US doesn’t mean quite what it means in many other countries,” he says. “In many countries, a town of this size (30,000) would have very little to do. Maryville has several nice restaurants near the campus, a large shopping mall and various shopping centres, movie theatres, nightclubs and more.”

Tennessee itself has many more attractions for students. Charles Wilkerson, Director of International Student Affairs at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, TN, mentions the fact it is the home of country music, which is a draw for Europeans in particular. It is also home to the Smoky Mountains, Elvis’s house, Gracelands, in Memphis and the world’s biggest flea market. It boasts more lakes than anywhere in the USA, a low cost of living, no state income tax and a low crime rate.

Most of the cities and towns in the inland states of the USA enjoy a slower pace of life than some of their east or west coast counterparts and students may find locals to be friendlier. John Liffiton, Programme Coordinator at Scottsdale Community College in Scottsdale, AZ, says, “The way of life is much more relaxed than back east and although people work hard, there isn’t the rush you find in many other large cities.”

Michelle Kempke Eppler, Dean of Academic Services and Students at Bellevue University in Bellevue, NE, highlights the welcoming nature of the people. “You’ll find friendly people, low crime rates and a cost of living that rivals any state in the country when you factor in Nebraska’s rich cultural, professional and educational resources,” he says.

For a taste of American history, Nebraska is ideal as it is a state rich in heritage, and this is one reason why many choose to study there, says Janet Willems, Director of International Programmes at Doane College in Crete, NE. “Historic sites such as Nebraskan author Willa Cather’s home in Red Cloud, sites along the Oregon Trail and points along Lewis and Clark’s historical journey through the state continue to draw students to Nebraska,” she says.

Despite the many advantages of the inland states, many international students do not know much about the area before they arrive. For example, Arkansas has many cultural and natural attractions but is better known internationally for very different reasons, as Miranda Stramel at Spring International Language Centre in Fayetteville, AR, admits. “Any Arkansan who has been abroad can tell you that people the world over know Arkansas as the home of former President Bill Clinton, and they generally know nothing else about [the state],” she says.

There is much to discover throughout Arkansas according to Stramel, who says, “Northwest Arkansas’ natural beauties, like the Boston and Ozark Mountains or the Buffalo River area, lie easily within reach of the city, while Fayetteville residents still have access to regional cultural centres like Eureka Springs or to larger cities like Tulsa, Dallas, Memphis, Kansas City and St Louis.”

Another ideal place to live is Fargo in North Dakota, according to Kerri Spiering at North Dakota State University’s Office of International Programmes, situated in Fargo, ND. “People like living here,” she says, “I think part of it is due to the quality of life here, the safety and reasonable costs.” Students at North Dakota State University have ample opportunities to participate in volunteer work, which, Spiering says, “is a great way for students to get out in the community and practise their language skills”.

The Culture and Intensive English Program at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, IA, also helps students to integrate with Americans by matching international students with a host family they can visit once a month, as well as arranging an American conversation partner. The programme’s Director, Robert Pesek, says students are attracted to the area because it is “very clean and [there are] very few other international people”.

Agent viewpoint

“My students do go to the inland states, and their main reason for going is to carry out a one-semester study programme in computer science, technology/engineering or life sciences. Students are most surprised by the hospitality, friendliness and openness of the American people in general, and the feeling of space compared with Europe. Apart from meeting and working with many people from all over the world, [students enjoy] visiting big cities like Nashville, Memphis, New York, Washington, Chicago and New Orleans.”
Maarten Schrevel, Zuyd University, Netherlands 

“I usually [recommend] Wisconsin, Nebraska and neighbouring states because there are not too many [Latin Americans there], so our students learn the language quicker. Even though there is not too much action in these states [compared with some of the better known states], our students like them because what they really want is to learn English and they have the chance to live on campus, which is a great experience for them.”
Alejandro Acero, Open Hearts International, Colombia

“The Tennessee Technical University is one of the few inland universities to which we are currently sending students. Our students are most surprised by the beauty of the countryside. [Students think] that Tennessee has a magnificent countryside and that the inhabitants are generally very friendly and hospitable.”
Guillaume De Meuter, University of Applied Sciences Würzburg-Schweinfurt, Germany

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