Breaking language barriers

Learning English for academic communication is one of the fundamental hurdles international students face when they want to come to the United States for college. Fortunately, Portland State University has one of the best — and one of the oldest — Intensive English Language (IELP) programs on the West Coast.

Founded in 1964, the program runs all year long, serving an average of 200 students at any one time. Registration for fall term is open now. The deadline is Aug. 30 for international applicants; Sept. 30 for transfer students from U.S. and Canadian schools.

Registration for fall term is open now. The deadline is Aug. 30 for international applicants; Sept. 30 for transfer students from U.S. and Canadian schools.

When students first arrive, they receive an orientation to the IELP and PSU, get to know each other and take a language placement test to determine which classes they should take. IELP faculty and staff help students register for classes; provide advising on academic, cultural and personal matters; and organize activities that help students engage with American life. IELP collaborates with the Office of International Students and Scholars to provide an Intercultural Social Hour every week at the Smith Memorial Student Union game room, including free snacks and soda. 

Undergraduates who want to earn a degree at PSU, but need to develop their academic English skills, can enroll in the Pathway Program, where they take PSU classes concurrently with IELP classes over six to nine months. Pathway students learn to understand academic lectures, adjust to American culture and academic life, practice their grammar and editing for academic writing, and much more. 

“We teach them how to navigate PSU,” said IELP senior instructor Phoebe Daurio. “We transition them in a way that they can take PSU classes while they’re working with us.”

IELP also runs a set of courses for graduate students looking to improve their written and oral academic English skills. Current undergraduate and graduate students who want some extra support can also enroll in IELP courses, use the IELP Learning Center and participate in IELP activities.

Students who do not intend to earn a degree in the United States can also take classes in the Academic English program and the Communication and Culture program (CCP). The CCP includes service projects in the community and focuses on learning about sustainability. And every summer, IELP hosts Fulbright scholars from around the world who want to improve their English so they can earn their master’s and Ph.D.s at universities throughout the United States. This summer, the IELP is also hosting 35 Brazilian English educators for a six-week training program.

“Everything we do is geared towards building a welcoming community that encourages students to connect in meaningful ways with each other, their teachers, the PSU campus and Portland,” said IELP Director Julie Haun. “That combination of an immersive language and intercultural experience is powerful and can be transformative.”

Volunteer opportunities are available. If you would like to be a conversation partner with a student who is learning English, contact the program at

— John Kirkland