ELSO: Supporting International Student Success


ELSO: Supporting International Student Success

By Sally Kral

In a classroom on the Ag Quad, a group of Ph.D. and masters students practice their English-language pronunciation skills. Across campus, on the Arts Quad, a group of graduate students talk through drafts of their literature reviews.

Evgeniya Nazarova, a Russian fifth-year Ph.D. student in microbiology

These free classes, offered by Cornell’s English Language Support Office (ELSO), provide English-language writing and speaking support for Cornell’s large international population of graduate and professional students. 


Hailing from 101 countries, international students comprise 47% of the Graduate School’s student body (as of fall 2015). Though proficient enough to pass Cornell’s rigorous language requirement, some of these students strive to communicate more effectively in English to enhance their academic and professional development.

Recognizing the need to support international students, the Graduate School in collaboration with the Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines, established ELSO in the fall of 2014.

“Supporting a diverse and international group of students throughout their academic lifecycle—from first-year through graduation—is central to our mission,” said Graduate School Dean and Senior Vice Provost Barbara A. Knuth. “For some students, this means English language support that is specific to their academic needs and proficiency levels.”

According to ELSO’s program director, Michelle Cox, ELSO is unique in both structure and approach. “ELSO is one of only a handful of university-based language support programs that is free, open for any registered graduate student across the university, and comprehensive—offering credit-bearing courses, tutoring, a workshop series, and a conversation program, designed to support graduate students across their degree programs.”

Emily Morgan, a postdoc in nutrition

ELSO is popular. Since its inception, the office has seen participation more than double, from 210 participants in fall 2014 to 489 in fall 2015. Part of ELSO’s success hinges on a carefully targeted approach in which personal attention and consideration for the unique needs of each student help focus learning where it’s needed most.

“The personalized assistance the instructors offer is one of the outstanding differences ELSO has compared to other English support programs I’ve encountered,” said Hugo Fernando Maia Milan, a Brazilian first-year Ph.D. student in biological engineering.

In many ELSO courses, instructors meet individually with students to help them set goals. For Evgeniya Nazarova, a Russian fifth-year Ph.D. student in microbiology, “This shows how much they care about students, and it also helps students think about what they actually need to work on and why.”

This approach is beginning to show results.

“ELSO courses gave me the tools and abilities to evaluate and improve my writing, which is the main reason I got involved,” Milan said. “I wrote two research papers with my advisor: one before taking ELSO courses and another after. My advisor told me that the writing quality of the second paper was immeasurably better than the first one.”

Brian Lo, a first-year Ph.D. student in nutrition from Hong Kong

While ELSO courses are not part of the typical academic curriculum, the types of skills developed can be vital to the academic and professional success of the students who participate in them. Nazarova aims to finish her degree this fall, and thanks to ELSO, she feels like she’s a better candidate for the job market because she can converse well with native speakers.

ELSO’s benefits extend to Cornell’s domestic students as well. Undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral volunteers help ELSO students practice their speaking skills as ambassadors. According to ELSO lecturer Melissa Myers, ambassadors often continue beyond their first semester-long commitment because they benefit from the cultural and academic perspectives of international graduate students.

"I see ELSO as instrumental in cultivating cross-cultural exchanges at Cornell and am excited to be part of that,” said ELSO Ambassador Emily Morgan, a postdoc in nutrition. 

International and domestic students can become involved with ELSO as tutors too. “We have local tutors but also those with diverse backgrounds,” said Nathan Lindberg, ELSO’s Tutoring Program Coordinator. “Our tutors speak a combined 15 languages and have a natural empathy toward their clients.”

Brian Lo, a first-year Ph.D. student in nutrition from Hong Kong, was inspired to become an ELSO tutor to assist fellow international students. “When I was in undergrad in Toronto, I had a really difficult time when I first arrived. I relied on the writing center there and one-on-one tutoring, so when I came to Cornell and found out about ELSO, I realized I could be a role model for my international student peers; I could show them that I did it, and they can too.”

Hugo Fernando Maia Milan, a Brazilian first-year Ph.D. student in biological engineering, and Lijie Tu, a Chinese third-year graduate student in applied physics

To many students, perhaps the most lasting benefit of ELSO is the sense of camaraderie and belonging. “In ELSO courses, workshops, and other events, I’ve encountered students from Brazil, Panama—all over the world—who are in the same situation I’m in and we’ve become quick friends,” says Lijie Tu, a Chinese third-year graduate student in applied physics.

Tu says that before taking ELSO courses he spoke primarily to other Chinese students, but he now feels comfortable engaging with native English speakers. “My advisor is a native speaker and I feel more comfortable talking with him now, and I speak up more in group meetings.”


Sally Kral is a communications assistant in the Graduate School.