By Dan Sizer /// Staff Writer
AES, short for Academic English Studies, is an intensive English program whose mission is not only to provide rigorous academic language training, but also to “foster an attitude of analytical, evaluative and critical thinking about issues that confront humans as global beings.” AES formally began in 1972 as the Institute for the Study of American Language and Culture (ISALC). In 2003 ISALC transitioned to a more departmental-type program and became AES.
Today, AES sponsors many events on campus such as the recent activities surrounding the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide and the Romeo Dallaire Scholarship, a scholarship that brings a Rwandan student to study at AES for one year. AES also runs the Community Friends program, incorporates community service into its curriculum, and has numerous work-study positions. In fall 2013 enrollment at AES reached an all-time high with 126 students.
Every morning before class I enter Albany, take the first left and proceed down a flight of stairs to a place many people probably don’t know exists. It would be tempting to call it a dungeon but for the bright lights, multi-lingual welcome sign and colorful decorations. This is where AES headquarters are, where I work, and where nearly 100 international students taking English courses at LC come to meet with their teachers, deliver assignments, or chat with Susan at admissions.
The hidden yet lively alcove of the AES office is an apt metaphor for the program as a whole. When I tell people I work for AES, their typical response is, “What’s AES?” After two years of working for the program I’m still surprised at the regularity with which this question arises. AES students use the same classrooms as undergraduates, they can audit the same courses, they participate in the same athletics, clubs and musical ensembles, and many live in the dorms. They are not hard to spot among our predominantly white, and lately sunburned, student body. AES students make up a large percentage of LC’s espoused ‘diversity,’ and have ever since the program’s beginnings in the early 70s.
Yet, the same question was being asked then. The question, “What’s AES?” represents a divide that has always existed between AES and CAS students. It’s not necessarily a problem–no one is hurt by the lack of engagement between the two groups–but the possibilities for, and benefits from, bridging the divide are at our fingertips.
Amal Mansour, an AES student from 1977-1979 and history graduate of LC in ‘83, told me that when she was in school, “most undergraduates didn’t know about AES” unless they were rooming with an international student or volunteering with the program. Haruka Mori, a current AES student on exchange from Waseda University in Japan, provided similar insight, albeit over 30 years hence. “People in Akin–people who are around international students–know what AES is. But most people don’t.”
Is the irony of the situation becoming evident?
For a college “committed to diversity and inclusion,” narrowing the gap between AES and CAS is one way to uphold the ideals we so eagerly champion. This starts with awareness.
If we are what the LC webpage says we are-–“the next generation of global thinkers and leaders”–we are missing out on an opportunity that is right under our noses. This year, students from thirteen different countries attended AES. These students, who like you and me congregate at DSA’s and eat at the Bon, represent the untapped potential AES brings to LC for a mutually beneficial relationship. Spending a semester abroad is not the easiest way to gain some global perspective.
And the benefit is mutual. Both Amal and Haruka, when asked about the best part of their study abroad experience, speak of the deep connections and lasting friendships they made at LC–friendships that bridged the divide between AES and CAS, friendships made with LC students despite cultural and lingual barriers. More than the high level of English they achieved at AES, their stories attest to the possibility, when realized, for relationships built not on words, but on the understanding that difference is only superficial.
In the words of AES director, Joanne Geddes, “What’s important are the relationships established, the ongoing understanding that we live in a global society and we have a lot to learn from people…That’s the kind of international relations and diplomacy that starts at this level–future diplomacy is beginning right here.”