Rowan English-immersion class is a constant field trip

Rowan English-immersion class is a constant field trip

Students in Frank Rubio's community engagement course at Rowan at Camden are learning English—and learning to appreciate the City of Camden.  
By Kathy Boccella
Philadelphia Inquirer

Nov. 19, 2012

Frank Rubio led about two dozen students from Rowan University's Camden campus down to the waterfront's historic Victor building, converted a few years ago into trendy apartments.

But the writing-arts professor wasn't trying to help anyone in his class find a one-bedroom unit with high ceilings and a romantic river view.

He was trying to help them find something that, for most of them, was more elusive: The right words. In English.

"Why did you choose dog?" asked Saudi Arabian-born Muath Rashed, 19, of Glassboro.

He was puzzled by a first-floor statue of Nipper - the terrier symbol of RCA, which used the World War I-era building as a factory for decades - and so his question inspired a long explanation from Melissa Ware, a regional manager for building owner Dranoff Properties.

Rashed and the others from nations including the Dominican Republic, China, Mexico, Vietnam, and Venezuela are taking a new class, the Community Engagement Course, which Rubio established for non-native English speakers.

The class seeks to accomplish two things, he said: It gets international students out of a classroom and into situations where they'll learn to converse in English about everyday situations, and it teaches them about Camden and its rich history.

"They know nothing about Camden and its history," said Rubio, who has been teaching at Rowan for eight years. "They only know how to get to the university."

This semester, Rubio and his 21 students - nearly half of the current English-as-a-second-language group at the Camden campus - have toured the city's best pizza place and plan to visit a local art gallery. Their itinerary also includes the Italian Market on Ninth Street in Philadelphia and eventually a journey to Radio City Music Hall in New York City to see the Rockettes. Each odyssey aims to broaden the students' vocabulary and their American experience at the same time.

"This is the lobby," Rubio said as the group arrived at the Victor. Before the trip, he had sent the students a list of real estate words – such as landlord, lease, rent, utilities, and security deposit. "There's a courtyard inside. Remember, we talked about all these words?"

His students had something else in mind. "Hey, Frank, how about your apartment!" one blurted out from the crowd. Rubio, who has lived at the Victor for two years, promised the students he would have a party in his unit, but not until the next week.

Although students hail from all over the globe, their affection for Rubio and his class seems universal.

"I like it. I have chance to speak English with people and understand more about the neighborhood in Camden, said Chau Nguyen, 43, a former health-food counselor who enrolled at Rowan after arriving in Glassboro from Vietnam 20 months ago to join her new husband.

"It's fun," she added. "And people, especially in Victor building, are very good."

One of her classmates, Samia Rafeh, 45, of Pennsauken, said she thought it was only temporary when she came to South Jersey last year from Venezuela, where she was a physics professor. Rafeh came to be with her mother after her father died. But then her mother died in December, and her children, 11 and 14, didn't want to leave the United States. Now she's looking for a university job but knows she needs to improve her English.

"We have to look for opportunities to talk," Rafeh said. "I feel better with grammar and writing, but when I have to talk professionally, oh, my God," she said and laughed.

The international students have found a kindred spirit in Rubio, who underwent his own unusual language journey. He was born in Southwest Philadelphia to an Irish Catholic mother and the son of a former Cuban vice consul who stayed in America after Fidel Castro's Communist takeover. Rubio said his father visited Cuba frequently as a youth but never encouraged his son to learn Spanish.

As an adult, he developed a strong interest in other languages and cultures. He said he long wanted to teach but was discouraged by his father, who told him, "You will be broke and exhausted for the rest of your life." Instead, he was burned out by his years working as a paralegal, so he went back to school and earned a master's degree as an English-as-a-second-language teacher in 2002.

In designing the Rowan course, Rubio saw the excursions as a valuable learning tool for writing as well as speaking. He asks students to conduct interviews and write reports about their experiences.

Coming up is a visit to Gallery Eleven One on North Front Street, where the students will learn about the city's arts and culture. On the outing to A Slice of New York Pizza run by longtime Camden businessman Pete Toso, they learned the lingo of running a small business.

"With each trip, they're learning 30, 40, 50 vocabulary worlds," Rubio said. "Each place we've visited has required a different aspect of communication."

Raymond Heng, 25, who came to Sicklerville from China two years ago and who plans to study computer science at Rowan's main campus in Glassboro next year, said he started learning English in his native land when he was 9. But the focus then was grammar, not the conversation skills he's learning in Rubio's class.

"Sometimes, if I speak too fast, no one can understand," Heng said. "My friend say we're not speaking English; we're speaking American."