Common language: English Language Program alumni share how they reached their goals

The word "hello" written in various languages on a blue background.

Being bilingual is widely recognized as a necessary skill the world over. For many, that means speaking English in addition to their native language.

Since the founding of the English Language Program at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1989, it has helped hundreds of students enhance these skills. Many have gone on to pursue bachelor’s, master’s or other degrees in the U.S. or their homelands, while others have used their improved English to advance their careers or simply enhance their everyday life.

We recently spoke with several ELP alumni who shared how the program helped them reach their goals. Here’s what they had to say:


Man in business attire
Harbey Peña

Harbey Peña
Associate ombudsman for the Inter-American Development Bank

The ELP at VCU helped me achieve my professional goal to [pursue] a master’s degree in conflict analysis and resolution. In order to study and succeed in a graduate program, I had to learn how to communicate in an academic environment — ask and answer questions, work in groups, have open discussions, express points of view, etc. In 2008 when I started ELP, I did not have all those skills in English. Through the year, my professors helped me learn to communicate in an environment that was going to be similar to the master’s program. After I finished ELP, I understood that the level of demand from my professors was necessary for me to succeed. I am very grateful for their requirements and challenges.


Selfie of woman in nurse's scrubs
Flavia Rangel

Flavia Rangel
Registered nurse

A long time ago, I set a professional goal for myself, which was to become a nurse in the U.S. I knew that I had to face learning English and studying for the nursing exams. On my first attempt, I failed because I studied English by myself in Brazil. So I decided to take a leave of absence from my job and move to the U.S. for several months to prepare. The ELP at VCU was the best choice to help me improve my English skills and it was crucial for my success in all my professional exams. In the end, I was able to pass all of my exams. Unfortunately, at that time, I wasn’t able to get a job or a sponsor for my visa, so I returned to Brazil. However, I didn’t give up! From there, I kept sending resumes and kept working on my English skills. Finally, after four years of waiting, I returned to the U.S. with the legal permission to work as a nurse. My dream came true. And I am very grateful for all my teachers in ELP and everything that I learned with them.


Man standing in front of flag and scenic view.
Wentao Huang

Wentao Huang
VCU senior

I think the ELP is a great transition for any international student starting college in the U.S. Especially for those who don’t speak English. I’ve met a lot of students who passed language tests like the [International English Language Testing System] and the [Test of English as a Foreign Language], but they still feel stressed about the language or can't understand their professors in their college classes.

The ELP professors care about their students and try to help them. I feel grateful to the ELP program and my ELP professors. They helped me adjust to college life very quickly and easily. Now I have a bunch of American friends, I’m liked by my professors and I have a job at the VCU Student Media Center. I am president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association. Besides this, I am also the illustration editor of The Commonwealth Times. I really appreciate those who gave me this chance to make myself better and help more people; the experience at the ELP was definitely the beginning of all of this.


Person in business attire standing by a poster presentation
Gulmira Yermakhanova

Gulmira Yermakhanova
Head of clinical trials at Medical Centre Hospital in Kazakhstan

I am from Kazakhstan, a developing and independent country in Central Asia. My undergraduate degree is in medical care, and I have a master’s degree in public health, both of which were completed in my country in 2004 and 2008, respectively.

In 2013, I received a scholarship from my government to study English at VCU and I studied in the program for six months. Throughout that time the ELP classes helped me to improve my language skills, especially my oral communication skills. After six months of studying in the ELP, I participated in a 10-month internship in health care policy and research at the VCU School of Medicine. Thanks to the ELP, it was easy to take part in lectures, seminars and workshops, because I could easily understand often-complicated concepts and participate in discussions. I even gave a poster presentation in the Global Health Symposium showcase at VCU and received first prize for the “Best Poster – Research.” I am so grateful for the ELP. Not only did the ELP improve my English, but it also opened my mind and increased my knowledge.


Man in business attire standing outside.
Rashawn M. Almshaal

Rashawn M. Almshaal
Maintenance planning section head, ExxonMobil Iraq Limited

I have many goals in my life, but the most important goal for me was to become a professional engineer in order to participate in rebuilding my country after several wars destroyed its infrastructure.

During my studies at the ELP, I learned significant lessons that helped me a lot during further stages in my life. After receiving my master’s degree in electrical engineering from VCU, I returned to my country and joined ExxonMobil Iraq Limited. Because of the English level that I had, I was able to deliver my thoughts and presentations smoothly to my foreign colleagues. I got promoted quickly and now I manage a team of 19 employees and I don’t think I will stop here. We can achieve our goals, and our dreams will come true, if we have the tools that we need to succeed. In a modern and open world, an important tool is English communication and I am pleased to have had this tool improved and matured by the ELP.   Visit the Global Education Office’s new beta website to see what other ELP alumni have shared about their time in the program.


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