Rob Siedenburg is a senior instructor for advanced academic writing at Global Education and Training (GET). Following a career in publishing, Rob was invited to join the GET team as an English instructor, and he has spent the last decade working to support international students' educational experiences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Lisa Chason is a Ph.D. candidate within the Education, Policy, Organization, and Leadership department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Lisa also serves as a consultant with the Writers Workshop at the University. Lisa has an M.A. in Teaching English as a Second Language, and she has been working with ESL learners for the past four decades. Having lived, worked, and taught in Amsterdam for twenty years, Lisa has also taught students in China, Vietnam, California, Boston, New York, and Illinois.
From 2017 to present, GET has hosted four individual cohorts of students from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST): Gifted Student Program (KGSP) program, for each academic year. At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, KGSP students are provided with immediate access to a solid infrastructure to support international students on campus. Learn about GET's involvement with the KGSP program.
As essay coaches, Rob and Lisa share their experiences working with the KSGP Foundation Year students, as they prepare competitive college applications to top U.S. universities.
What’s it like to be an essay coach? What are your strategies?
RS: My strategy is straightforward: engage a student at his or her level of writing and take that student as far as possible toward excellence. The first priority is to work with each student on on-going essays, to the point where the student begins seeing personal writing errors and repairing them during a session. Once a student sees his or her own mistakes, correcting them becomes second nature. The second priority is to fill in additional allotted time with very brief, but important, grammar and punctuation lessons.
Teaching a language provides a remarkable opportunity for the instructor to learn it better. Idiomatic language usage might be one of the hardest things to teach and learn, but it's also one of the most important aspects of the language. I have learned that, even at my advanced age, I can still communicate linguistic and cultural information that's useful to my students.
"Santa" Rob Siedenburg with KGSP Foundation Year students in 2019.
What have you learned about Saudi Arabian culture?
LC: I've enjoyed learning about Saudi culture - just the little glimpses I get from the students' stories about driving in a car through the desert, large families full of friendly sibling rivalry, learning to cook with one's mother and grandmother, wise sayings a father shares, love for the Arabic language. And also examples that transcend cultural differences, like struggling to find your voice, anxieties over feeling like an outsider, not wanting to disappoint those who love you...
RS: I've learned that essay coaching is not for the faint of heart. We are products of our culture, just as surely as we are creators of it. Thus, it's been terrific fun learning more about the beautiful Saudi culture, a journey I began at another teaching assignment some years ago, and communicating crucial bits of American culture to my students. It's a fair exchange.
What makes the KGSP students’ essays memorable?
LC: I get such vivid pictures from what the students write - perfect examples of what they are learning: "to show, don't tell." I feel honored to be in their audience!
What do you enjoy most about working with the KGSP Foundation Year students?
LC: I think what stands out for me the most working with the KAUST students is how smart they are and how amazing their English is. I asked one student last year, who absolutely spoke like a native speaker, how his English was so good. I was expecting to hear that he had gone to an international school or had lived abroad. Instead, he told me he had grown up listening to YouTube videos, and that is how he learned!
RS: I enjoy the students themselves. These are very bright young people, with their eyes fixed on a bright future, dreaming creatively but practically of helping to meet Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030—and working hard to be part of the solution, rather than the problem, in their rapidly developing nation.
I had two accidents on the same day during September 2019. The next day, all of my Saudi students gathered quietly outside of the room where I did my essay-coaching. As soon as the session ended, they all entered with a big bouquet of flowers, a nice card, and some balloons, to wish me a quick recovery. The experience was among the most beautiful of my entire teaching career.
Thanks, Rob & Lisa!