Denise Góñez-Santos, executive director of the Regional Bilingual Education Resource Network's West region, holds up a framed conference poster with Dr. Debra Colley, executive vice president of Niagara University.

Niagara University’s full embrace of international students under the three-year tenure of its president, the Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., is well-documented.

Niagara presently ranks second in Western New York in terms of enrolled international students (according to Business First) and, in January, established the Edward A. Brennan Center for Language, Culture and Leadership, which will meet the needs of international families and students, and serve English language learners within the global community.

On Saturday, May 21, Niagara University served as the site for a section of the annual conference of the New York State Association for Bilingual Education. It was the first time the conference had come to the region since the 1980s.

More than 220 bilingual and non-bilingual educators and administrators attended the conference, which included remarks from New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, a former Lewiston resident. The event included simultaneous conferencing with a section in New York City (at New York University) that included nearly 350 attendees.

NYS Conference on Bilingual Education | 05.21.16

“I think when teachers and educators get together, and organizations like this, so much gets done,” Elia said. “You’re starting to talk through the issues and because you’re professionals and smart and thinking, you come up with solutions before we really have to figure out what to do in state government. (That’s) not the place to find solutions. Solutions need to come from you.”

Elia was accompanied at the session by Angelica Infante-Green, deputy commissioner of the state’s Education Department.

The theme of this year’s conference was Changing Policies, New Directions. Speakers discussed different philosophies for improving upon the way multiple languages are utilized in an educational environment, both in terms of how to help teach language on a technical level and how to create an environment that makes use of several languages simultaneously.

“Niagara University is honored to host the state conference,” noted Dr. Debra Colley, NU’s executive vice president and former dean of its College of Education. “Working together for multilingual learners and thinking about policies and practices that ensure the success of young people is directly tied to the Vincentian mission of Niagara.”

Elia noted that many new immigrants who don’t speak English have come to New York in recent years. She said that there were more than 240,000 English language learners in the state’s public school system during the 2015-2016 school year.

In addition to Elia, the program featured a presentation on “translanguaging” from Ofelia Garcia, a professor at the Graduation Center at the City University of New York. The concept, as defined by Garcia, is a bilingual person’s “flexible use of their linguistic resources to make meaning of their lives and their complex worlds.”

Niagara University, even before Father Maher’s presidency, has sought to address the language barriers that exist with the ever-increasing internationalization of the United States. For example, the university offers undergraduate and graduate programs in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). These programs are offered in partnership with the P-12 schools and lead to teaching certification in this highly sought after area of employment.

Since 2013, Father Maher has made visits to China, Vietnam, Turkey, and several other countries to inform students and scholars about Niagara University, which, along with a well-rounded composition of academic programs, is attractive to international students and scholars because of its proximity to Niagara Falls and Toronto.

Every July, Niagara holds an English Summer Camp that immerses nonnative learners in the English language through instruction and cultural activities. The university’s acclaimed College of Hospitality and Tourism Management offers a Hospitality and Tourism Training Institute for international refugees in search of job training.

At Niagara, the diversification of the student body and faculty roster is intended to benefit the traditional student as much as those who come from overseas.

“It is our vision to educate citizens of the world, knowing the strength that linguistic and cultural diversity brings to our professions and our community,” added Dr. Colley. “Conferences like this one and partnerships with state and national associations for bilingual education and TESOL allow us to think together about the continuum of educational opportunity.”