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Belief Statements: Juniata Language Students Get Essays on the Radio

(Posted October 11, 2010)

Nanako Ikeda gets set to record her "This I Believe" essay.

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Most college students finish an essay and then wait for a grade, only to throw it in a drawer and forget about it. In Juniata College's Intensive English Program, where international students learn to speak and write in English, student essays often end up broadcast throughout central Pennsylvania.

Gretchen Ketner, an instructor in the Intensive English Program, inspired by her drive home listening to NPR news show "All Things Considered," has used a WPSU-FM show called "This I Believe" to construct a writing assignment for Juniata's international students.

"This I Believe," a local version of a national NPR project, airs essays in which local people recite their personal -- often poignant, funny or pointed -- belief statements. Ketner, seeking a challenging essay assignment for her writing students, thought the radio essay would be perfect for her High-Intermediate (a classification that means the international is focusing on academic language skills) pupils.

Some of the students attend Juniata for four years and others are merely in Huntingdon for a semester, just long enough to immerse themselves in Pennsylvania's language and culture. Typically, there are 10 to 12 students in Ketner's class.

"The first time I taught the class, I used an assignment to write about a lesson learned in life," Ketner says. "I thought writing a 'This I Believe' essay would show the students that writing could reach beyond the class."

"I think the students are both thrilled and very nervous, because they are speaking to a wide audience, but not in their native language. So far, no one has turned it down."
Gretchen Ketner, instructor, Intensive English Program

In 2008, Ketner sent her class essays to then-producer Cynthia Berger at WPSU-FM and soon thereafter two international students -- Sahira Paulino, from Dominican Republic, and Anivia Claire Howell, from Nicaragua -- recorded essays for the show.

"In class I used a couple of essays from the radio program so the students could see the structure of the assignment," she explains. To date, eight international students, from such countries as Ecuador, Japan, China and Nicaragua, have recorded essays over the two years the project spans.

The students who have appeared on WPSU-FM have written on their mother's cooking, soccer, and positive thinking. This semester, more students are finishing up their essay assignment and Ketner will decide in a few weeks which writing to submit to the radio station.

Each student who has an essay accepted works directly with WPSU-FM producer Emily Reddy to record their work. "I think the students are both thrilled and very nervous, because they are speaking to a wide audience, but not in their native language," Ketner says. "So far, no one has turned it down."

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.