March 2004 issue

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America discovered

The USA is made up of 50 states and yet only a handful of these have established themselves as language travel destinations. Here, Gillian Evans sets out to unearth some of the attractions of the USA's less well-known states in the heart of the country.

'Many times, I have heard the comment from our students that if [others] just knew about what we have to offer here, in terms of location and the entire cultural and learning experience, we would have many more students,' says Becky Sheldon, Director of Interlink Language Center at Valparaiso in Indiana.

The same could be said for most of the USA's inland states, which are often eclipsed on the language travel map by the more famous east and west coast states such as California, New York and Massachusetts. Students who do choose somewhere different to study will discover the true America against a backdrop of stunning scenery, from the Rocky Mountains to the Great Lakes, from dramatic red-rock deserts to soaring mountain ranges offering some of the country's best snow sports and hiking opportunities.

Another real advantage of studying in these states is that they are less crowded with other language students, says Sheila Hoffmann-Hicks, President of Global Language Institute in St Paul, Minnesota. 'The language is a really important reason for students coming to Minnesota, because they know that there are not large populations of any one [nationality] here,' she says. 'Often, students transfer [here] from other schools for this reason.'

Other benefits of studying in one of the USA's inland states include safety and a lower cost of living, as well as the opportunity to unearth some of the USA's lesser known treasures. For example, the Great Lakes area, also known as America's Heartland, is a fascinating mix of urban and rural living, and provides an insight into American life and culture - pollsters and product marketeers use the area as a testing ground for what the nation is thinking.

Situated on the banks of Lake Michigan, Chicago, Illinois, is the place to go in the area for culture and entertainment. 'Chicago has everything - from incredible dining, nightlife, extraordinary boat cruises and trolley tours to prestigious galleries, off-beat boutiques, internationally renowned museums and [outstanding] business services,' comments Tigran Muradyan, Partnership Coordinator at the Chicago-based Intrax English Institute.

Students love to hang out at Navy Pier, where there are five acres of parks, promenades and gardens, with plenty of shops and restaurants. Muradyan adds, 'Food seems to be everywhere in Chicago. Perhaps for that reason there is a Taste of Chicago Festival held every summer. But the city's top foods are definitely 'deep-dish' pizzas, delicious mouth-watering steaks and the unique Chicago-style hot dog.'

East of Illinois is Indiana, which, according to Sue Namias, Director of ELS Language Centers in Indianapolis, offers students 'a real American experience'. Home to the world's oldest and most famous car race, Indianapolis, affectionately known as Indy, is the 11th largest city in the USA, but Namias says that most people do not realise this, because the city is so spread out.

For a small-city experience of Indiana, Interlink has centres in Terre Haut, which is just an hour away from Indianapolis, and Valparaiso. 'Valparaiso, which is Spanish for Vale of Paradise, was so named to symbolise the beauty and wealth of the lakes and beaches and rich agricultural land surrounding it,' says Sheldon. One of the main attractions of the area is the Indiana Dunes National Lake Shore, an area of almost 25 miles along Lake Michigan that includes beaches, sand dunes, bog wetlands and woodland forests.

The friendly people of Indiana, who are nicknamed Hoosiers, are also a great feature of the state, says Namias. 'Indiana is known for its Midwestern hospitality,' she says. 'Students are always surprised and pleased to discover how friendly and unhurried people from this area are.'

Gerry Thiemann, Director of Conversa Language Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, also highlights the welcoming nature of Cincinnati's residents, who, he says, are particularly helpful to foreigners. The city itself is largely untouched by international tourism, and Thiemann reports, 'Our students are surprised at what a great city [Cincinnati] is. It has all the offerings of a big city such as first-class arts, music [and] theatre, major league sports and more.' Ohio is also home to Amish Country, a scattering of farming villages between Cleveland and Columbus, where horse-drawn carts carry traditionally dressed Amish people, and shops sell homemade crafts and foods.

In contrast, Minnesota boasts the USA's largest shopping mall, the Mall of America. 'It even has an aquarium attraction and an amusement park [in it],' says Hoffmann-Hicks. But that is not all the state is famous for. The Mississippi River starts in Minnesota, a state with over 10,000 lakes, and St Paul lays claim to being the birthplace of George Schultz, the creator of Snoopy and Charlie Brown. And again, the friendliness of the people of Minnesota is widely acknowledged by other Americans, which has led to the term 'Minnesota nice'.

For a real taste of 'cowboy' country, Arizona is a good choice, says Sarah Kim at the Center for English as a Second Language at the University of Arizona in Tucson. 'Famous locations such as Tombstone, Arizona, the site of the shootout at the OK Corral, are just a short drive from Tucson, and there are still many working cattle ranches and real cowboys living in the area,' she says.

Surrounded by four mountain ranges, yet set in beautiful desert scenery, Tucson is ideally placed just an hour's drive from Mexico and an hour from Mount Lemmon for skiing in the winter. Kim adds, 'Tucson has a relaxed multicultural population with influences especially from Mexican and Native American cultures.'

North of Arizona is Colorado and the state capital, Denver. 'Denver's weather is a big attraction [to students],' points out Mariano Descalzi, Director of Bridge-Linguatec, in Denver. 'It's known for its mild dry weather and more than 310 days of sunshine per year. It's also located at the base of the Rocky Mountains, so skiing, hiking, mountain biking and camping are just an hour from the city.'

Ahad Shahbaz, President of Interlink Language Centers in Golden, which is just 15 miles from Denver, adds, 'The metro area and Colorado are really clean. Our students often remark on the cleanliness and on the health-conscious people of the area - people here are very active, hiking, biking, kayaking and skiing.'

Another state known for its great outdoor activities is Utah. Wild mountain ranges, red-rock canyons, vast deserts and wild rivers provide ideal conditions for outdoor pursuits. 'The outdoors attracts a great many students who are interested in opportunities for climbing, mountain biking, hiking and, of course, skiing - Utah was the host of the 2002 Winter Olympics,' says Cameron Beatty at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah.

Birthplace of Butch Cassidy, Utah is far more famous today for being the Mormon State, with a way of life hinged on traditional values. 'Our school is located in the heart of western USA, where the core values of trustworthiness, hard work and family are paramount,' explains Beatty. 'The way of life supported by these values is becoming increasingly rare, and this is a great place for students to see it in action.' Because of its Mormon tradition, there are no bars, pubs, discos or shopping malls in Ephraim. Instead, says Beatty, in their free time, students take part in outdoor activities, campus clubs, and theatre and musical productions.

Most schools throughout the USA organise plenty of excursions to places of interest and activities to mix with the local people. At Global Language Institute, Hoffmann-Hicks says, 'Several times per year, our students visit a local elementary school where, in groups, they 'teach' the children something about their country - a song, dance, art form...'

Jerald Fox, Director of the Ockinga Center at the University of Nebraska in Kearney, Nebraska, says their activities coordinator organises 'visits by students to public schools, a volunteer programme in the community [and] conversation tables'.

Nebraska, together with Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and the Dakotas, is part of the Great Plains area of the USA, where cowboys encountered Native Americans and pioneers blazed trails to the west. Kearney itself, according to Fox, is a small city with a population of 30,000, 'but has all the advantages of a larger city'. Fox adds, 'We have great parks with free weekly concerts in the summer, great museums, a solid growing economy and many outdoor activities.' Other activities organised by the school include international movie nights, barn dances and visits to local farms.

It is clear that there is more to the USA than its coastal states. In summing up the attractions of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, John Campbell of Southeast Missouri State University says, 'It is an excellent place to study and experience real American culture.' The same is true of many places in this vast and integral part of the USA.

Agent viewpoint

'Students' destinations vary. We have placed a few students in states such as Ohio, Utah, and Arizona. In addition, because of our strong relationship with schools in Nevada, thousands of students have been placed in Nevada-based schools in the past. Some students are attracted to these states because of the small percentage of Japanese students [there] and the relatively inexpensive living costs. However, the majority of students choose to go to schools in these areas based on their academic excellence.'
Kazuko Zukie Hirota, Nevada-California International Consortium of Universities and Colleges (NIC), Japan

'For Japanese students, these areas are not interesting. If the students choose these areas to study English, they are thinking seriously about going on to any of [the local] universities where they have courses they want to take. We know the programmes in these areas are good quality because their students are generally good and serious and have high motivations, which keeps teachers focused.'
Yukari Kato, Ryugaku Journal Inc. (ICS), Japan

'Last year, we sent students to Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. Traditionally, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois are very popular states for Taiwanese students to study in. Ohio State University has a Taiwanese student population of over 300. Reputation matters very much for Taiwanese students. They are interested in these states because their schoolmates were or are studying here. Another factor is the American connection. Some students might have visited these states for different reasons, such as sightseeing, [school] exchange, business or conference trips, or they may have parents who have received degrees from local institutions. Most students do not have a sound idea about their destination. There are few of these kind of books available in Chinese. They ask me everything, such as questions about the weather, geographic situation, transportation, population, and attitude of the local people towards foreign students. With the downturn of economic conditions in Taiwan recently, more and more students are also seeking alternatives to the USA's west and east coast. In general, I would like to say that the language programmes in the Midwest states are more efficient and effective than those in the coastal states [in my opinion]. I have a student who went to study in Colorado and he told me that Colorado is a great place to learn English because it is hard to meet a Taiwanese [person].'
Ben Chang, UR Edu & Info Co Ltd, Taiwan

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