Thinh Hoang, an immigrant from Vietnam, was thrilled to begin his freshman year at Bellarmine three years ago. But he quickly found himself struggling with college-level academic demands.
His toughest challenge was writing the long papers required in his English, philosophy and religion courses, said Mr. Hoang, whose family moved to the United States in 2001. “My writing wasn’t really up to college expectations.”
Fortunately, help was as close as the W.L. Lyons Brown Library. Mr. Hoang’s professors pointed him to the basement, where the Academic Resource Center’s Writing Center is devoted to helping students improve their papers – and their overall writing skills.
“At first I didn’t want to go, but I needed help,” recalled Mr. Hoang, 22, whose parents were both teachers from Vietnam. After more than a year of one-on-one tutoring and writing help from a professor as well as older students, he had improved his grammar, organization and flow, he said. “It helped my grades a lot – my professors noticed,” said Mr. Hoang, now a senior majoring in information technology who is poised to graduate next month with the goal of working with data.
The Academic Resource Center, known as “the ARC” around campus, provides an array of programs to help students, including individual tutoring, study sessions led by trained upperclassmen, writing tutorials and programs to prepare students for law or medical school entrance exams.
The ARC also houses the Pioneer Scholars Program and the university’s parent communication efforts, including monthly newsletters.
While transitioning to college academics isn’t always easy, writing can be a particularly difficult adjustment. Recent National Assessment of Educational Progress testing shows that nationally, only a little more than a quarter of high school seniors in 2011 were found to be proficient in writing.
Bellarmine opened its Writing Center in 1998. By last year, it was scheduling more than 560 student appointments a semester as a growing number of professors began requiring students to visit, said Cassie Book, the center’s director.
“I refer a lot of students to the center,” said Dr. Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a professor of nursing who also helps tutor students there. “It can be a big help for everyone, from undergraduate to graduate students.”
Students – about half of whom are freshmen – sign up for appointments with older students who are trained as writing tutors during a class worth one credit hour. The tutors help analyze structure, thesis, transitions, clarity and synthesis, suggesting ways to improve.
“Some [students] really struggle over writing a thesis statement, how to situate ideas and organize their essays,” Dr. Fitzgerald said. “We really try to motivate them to revise after putting a lot of effort into a first draft.”
On a wintry afternoon earlier this year, 20-year-old Bellarmine junior Morgan Kern strode into the ARC, where a bulletin board was filled with postings on tutoring sessions in nursing, biology and history classes.
At the door to the small Writing Center, she meet peer tutor Kalie Gipson, a 22-year-old senior. Sitting at a desk in a room with whiteboards, Ms. Kern said she needed help with the latest weekly paper for her environmental science class.
“It’s a draft, so it’s not finished,” she told Ms. Gipson. “Would you mind going through it and checking it?”
The two talked over how to properly cite a PDF pulled from a city website for her paper, which was about earthquakes. Then Ms. Gipson asked Ms. Kern to read her paper aloud to help identify gaps and long sentences.
“It helps – you can often catch a lot of your mistakes,” Ms. Gipson said of the technique.
English as a Second Language students represent only about 13 percent of those served by the center, but those such as Mr. Hoang say the help is crucial.
Dr. Fitzgerald said she started working with students who had limited English-speaking skills and were studying to take nursing and medical board exams. Now she devotes 10 hours a week at the Writing Center, working with students from places as varied as Iraq, China, Germany and Ecuador.
“I think sometimes writing can seem very daunting to people, and to those who speak English as second language, it can be extremely daunting,” she said.
That was definitely the case for Ky Nguyen, a 21-year-old senior who is also from Vietnam. He struggled with writing woes during his freshman year. That included being unaware of the rules regarding using unattributed passages found on the Internet in his writing, he said.
He said his high school education didn’t include much writing instruction, including the time he spent learning in the U.S. At the Writing Center, he learned about proper citations and how to “write efficiently” and clearly, he said. He went on to take advantage of the ARC’s other offerings, including tutoring in history and economics and study sessions to prepare for exams.
“It helped a lot,” said Mr. Nguyen, who is majoring in computer science and is set to graduate in 2014.
Chris Kenning | firstname.lastname@example.org