Musings of a New PhD Student

Christina Perry

I genuinely believe that when a door opens, you should walk through to see where the path will take you. There have been many doors in my life. This blog is about the door that opened upon the path to completing a PhD in Educational Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island.

I guess I could say that the eventual opening of the door to studying at the doctoral level started several years ago when I opened the door and started a Bachelor of Education. Becoming a teacher seemed a logical decision because I grew up watching my father impact the lives of many students as a teacher. At that time, my goal was to teach at the elementary level. I enjoyed learning about educational theory and the practice of teaching children but quickly realized that working with this age group was not where I was meant to be. Shortly after completing the BEd program, an opportunity arose to teach English as an Additional Language (EAL) with young adults who were participating in the program Katimavik. Little did I know that I was walking through the door that led to a career of working in the field of EAL. After working with Katimavik, I started to work at an intermediate school with a student who had beginner level English. He was in grade seven and his teachers were at a loss as to how to help him learn the curriculum material with little to no English. I enjoyed the challenge of helping him progress from a beginner level English learner to having the skills to function in the classroom with limited EAL support. 

It was during these early experiences of teaching EAL when I realized that this was the area I wanted to pursue. I found working with English Language Learners interesting and rewarding. Identifying a learner’s language level and navigating him/her through the process of acquiring English intrigued me. I enjoyed strategizing ways to help someone learn and felt energized seeing this person make strides in his/her learning. It is truly amazing to see a student’s transformation. Through the acquisition of English, learners build the confidence and competence to take linguistic risks. Through these risks, they challenge and push themselves to use and understand higher level English. The importance of exposure to higher level English to acquisition is represented in Krashen’s (1984) theory of comprehensible input and the i + 1 model. The more I taught EAL and interacted with English language learners at various levels, the more knowledgeable I became of the learning process.

The doors along the path of working in the field of EAL continued to present themselves. In 2003, I started working with the federally funded program Explore (formally known as the Summer Language Program) at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI). I worked first as an EAL teacher and then as a Program Coordinator. Over the course of five years, I worked with the program to welcome more than two hundred students to the UPEI campus each summer where they were immersed in English courses and socio-cultural activities. Within this position, I developed knowledge and competence establishing curriculum, conducting English assessments, overseeing a teaching staff, and the administration of programming. Shortly after I started working with the Explore program, I took on an additional teaching assignment with the UPEI English Academic Preparation (EAP) program teaching 1st year international students who required courses in academic English courses before starting their degree programs. For the next few years, my area of focus was teaching courses in reading comprehension, speaking, and listening comprehension. In 2008, I moved to working full time in the UPEI EAP program. As I gained experience teaching in the EAP program, I was tasked with more responsibility. I moved into an Assistant Coordinator position and am now the Program Manager. The program has more than one hundred students taking courses each semester with offerings from beginner to advanced across all for skills areas. I work closely with instructors to create curriculum, conduct English assessments, organize course schedules, act as a student advisor, and collaborate closely with the International Student Office to create student-based programming that focuses on mental health, academics, and socio-cultural activities. 

In 2009, when I started to prepare a thesis proposal as part of the Masters in Education that I was completing, I thought about the students with whom I worked and their experiences progressing their English skills while at the same time starting a degree program at an English speaking university. I wanted to better understand how the UPEI EAP program played a role in preparing students for academic study. A mixed-methods exploratory case study was conducted to gauge the contributing factors to student preparedness. Delving into the influential factors that enable success had by EAP students transitioning into degree-based courses fostered a personal interest in the learner-centered approach.

It has been eight years since completing a Masters in Education and my resolve to encourage and foster success among English language learners at the post-secondary level is stronger than ever. I have seen the international student population grow substantially. For example, in 2008 the international student body represented 8% of the total student population (Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission, 2013). The international student population now sits at 29% (UPEI, 2019). Language is only one of the challenges that non-native English students face studying at an English speaking institution. Other factors at play are such things as: students’ prior learning experiences, cultural norms, and approaches to teaching and learning, etc. With the international student body comprising of almost 30% of the overall student population, I have started to hear more from professors who talk about having a class of almost 50% international students and feeling as though they lack the skill and ability to meet the changing needs of their students. Additionally, I hear from students who are struggling with the academic demands of their courses, in addition to the changes they are having to make personally to adjust to the expectations and cultural norms that differ from their home countries. Often we take for granted the ways we learn, interact, and solve problems until we are faced with expectations that are different from what we learned. Examples of this include: classroom behaviour, how to study with peers, how to interact with a professor, how to conduct research, how to write an essay, how to read a textbook, how to complete an assignment, etc. Teaching and learning practices are rooted in cultural norms. Many international students feel uprooted when they are studying outside of their home country. Unfortunately, sometimes there is a lack of understanding of these differences by students and also by professors/instructors. Helping students and professors navigate the transition that international students face and finding alternate ways of teaching and learning that enable all students to be successful is what I am most interested in pursuing. I want to explore alternate theories of practice that can be implemented in classrooms at the post-secondary level. Opening the door and studying at the doctoral level will create a platform from which I can explore and investigate how to help non-native English speakers be successful academically at an English speaking university. Everything that I have done up to this point and the doors of opportunity that I have opened have all led me here to the doorstep of starting a doctoral degree. I am learning that I have a voice and I am ready to share.

As is stated so eloquently by Dr. Seuss in the story “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”:


            be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray

            or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea,

            you’re off to Great Places!

            Today is your day!

            Your mountain is waiting.

            So… get on your way!