In the middle of downtown Madison is a world with a mix of cultures and languages. The Wisconsin English Second Language Institute (WESLI) welcomes both international students from around the world and local students to learn English in an immersive atmosphere.
Students hail from 25 or more countries every month. Walking the halls, one hears languages from Asia, Africa, and South America. This convergence of people are united in their goals to study English. Some students are university bound, learning English from beginner to academic in a year. Others come to ensure an authentic American experience and improve their language for travel or business. Many plan on English for their career advancement in international business. And there are also those who need English for the essentials: work, a new home, and connecting with others.
WESLI has been teaching English since 1981, beginning out of Gail and Jeff Dreyfuss’ passion. The original school was located on University Avenue near campus and later moved to the Capitol Square in the 1990s.
Since then, over 15,000 students have studied at WESLI, going on to universities and careers. Alumni have become top executives in hotel and oil industries, authors, leaders for change here and abroad, and government officials across the globe.
Every student works hard to study intensively, but no journey is gone alone. WESLI has a family-like atmosphere with teachers and staff offering support to students in their studies and daily life challenges. Students form new friendships across cultures in classes and activities.
Such community is important to WESLI, both every day in the school and outside the classroom walls. We encourage students to participate in the local community as much as possible.
Volunteering is popular among students. It gives the chance to help out and practice their language skills. WESLI connects students to local opportunities, like tutoring in their native language and helping out at the Children’s Museum and community events. Not only does it help their language skills improve through the conversations, but the integrated community experience is part of the rich study-abroad experience that Madison offers.
Many students have volunteered with East High School to tutor in their native languages of Arabic, Korean, Chinese, Spanish, and Japanese. WESLI students enjoy experiencing an American high school and being able to share their own languages.
Community members reach back by becoming conversation partners with WESLI students. After matched, the conversation partner and student will meet up for a weekly conversation. This program fosters strong community connections, friendships, and confidence for students.
WESLI works with a number of area businesses to provide professional English lessons for their employees. Teachers travel to businesses to provide the customized lessons, allowing the employee to improve specific skills for job growth and advancement. Sometimes employees of local businesses attend classes at WESLI in the International Business Essentials or Public Speaking classes, learning in a diverse classroom.
For other businesses, a large on-site class of English or Spanish is helpful to build the language gap between co-languages. Whether employees are beginner or advanced, instructors provide a balance of lesson and practice with content fitted for the unique work environment. “Tutoring for business clients has been so rewarding. You can see where they started and how far they’ve come,” says Regina Frank, a WESLI tutor for professional English.
Community is central to WESLI, with partnerships locally and globally. A new and impactful partnership with Leading Change continues this mission. Leading Change is a nonprofit seeking to renew Africa one scholar at a time to impact a larger community. Adama Sawadogo was the first Carlos Osorio Scholarship for Change recipient in 2018 through Leading Change.
Carlos Osorio is the owner of WESLI and started out as a WESLI student himself before buying the school after completing his MBA from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The scholarship was named by staff in honor of Carlos’ own journey and continued commitment to international students through this fully funded English study scholarship.
“WESLI has been committed to the success of international students of all kinds seeking high-level academics in the United States. We feel that Leading Change’s mission is honorable and want to make a significant impact toward success of these students in the organization’s early years,” says Carlos.
Teachers and staff at WESLI also have their own unique journeys that brought them to WESLI. Some have had abroad careers teaching English, returning to their midwestern roots and finding WESLI as a connection to their international experiences. Others began in WESLI’s Teacher Training Program, which served as their first steps into the world of English as a Second Language (ESL). Starting off with little knowledge of the field, they soon found their teaching abroad job, like Nathan Brelsford, who taught in South Korea before returning to Wisconsin and teaching at WESLI.
Nathan teaches the academic and professional levels at WESLI and is one of many favorite teachers. His classroom lessons focus on developing the key skills in understating communication and ideas beyond grammar. His classes often involve attending community lectures and events to complete assignments designed to foster authentic learning and understanding.
As with any study abroad experience, students are looking forward to all the new experiences and the memories they will make. However, study abroad is not without its challenges. Students are tired after hours of travel and connection flights when they arrive in Madison. WESLI staff or a homestay family welcomes them upon arrival, offering a friendly face and prepared accommodations. Students often arrive to Madison a day or two before their first day at WESLI. This gives them a little time to recover from jetlag and get their bearings. Everything is still new, with more to experience and a few more challenges ahead.
Their first day at WESLI includes assessments and orientation, followed by the first week of classes. The first week is very exhausting as students acclimate to an only-English environment. Students connect with new and old students, which helps ease their learning curve in their new surroundings.
If a student stays with a homestay family instead of the WESLI Student Residence downtown, they get a front-row seat to experience American life. Homestay families will host a student from a few weeks to a few months. They eat meals as a family, go on weekend excursions, and spend time together talking and reflecting on the daily happenings.
Homestay families have been an integral part of WESLI’s community for over 30 years. Not only do they provide a kindness in opening their home, they become family to students, building friendships extending into the years to come.
WESLI connects worlds apart through the open communities of Madison and beyond and hopes to continue to reach throughout the area. WESLI wouldn’t be here without our students, but we wouldn’t be here without our local community. Madison is authentic and students comment on how friendly everyone is. With Madison’s consistent top rankings, students experience the best of the United States with opportunities never too far.
Jennifer Phillips is the director at WESLI.