Interview: Elizabeth O’Dowd, PhD, Director of TESOL Programs at Saint Michael’s College


Elizabeth O'Dowd, PhD, Director of TESOL Programs at Saint Michael’s College, joins us today to discuss Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).

1. Can you tell us about the Masters in TESOL (MATESOL) programs offered at Saint Michael’s College?

The MATESOL emerged in 1962 as a natural extension of our English as a Foreign Language programs. Since then, it has evolved into a multi-faceted program, with an unusually diverse set of options for such a small college. Our MATESOL tracks include K-12 Licensure, K-12 Endorsement for licensed teachers, a Master’s International (Peace Corps) Program, and the hybrid Online + On-campus program. We also have smaller programs such as the 4-week summer intensive TESOL Diploma.

2. How long does a typical MATESOL program take at Saint Michael’s? What is the maximum and minimum time of completion?

If you go full-time (4 courses per semester), it’s possible to graduate in 3 semesters counting summer. For example, if you start in September (with the most logical sequence of courses), you could finish by the following August. Most students take classes at a more leisurely pace and finish in four or five semesters. Our newest, hybrid online track, takes 14 months – two summers and the intervening academic year. Other students come for summers only (three summers). At the slow end, part-timers may take up to seven years to complete the degree.

3. What do you think makes  Saint Mike’s MATESOL stand out from other similar programs?

I’d say our reputation relative to our size, our flexibility, and our community. Most of our recruitment comes from word of mouth. In our 50 years, we have built up an alumni family of well over a thousand around the world, and they recommend us to the next generation of applicants, who are studying at their universities or teaching at their schools. With admissions open year-round, students can start in spring, summer or fall, to suit their personal needs and schedules.  Then, we have a long-standing reputation for close interaction between students and faculty. This is partly because of our unique situation as a pre-professional program within a small, residential liberal arts college on a gorgeous Vermont campus. Since many of our international students are sponsored by  US State Department or other government support, we recruit from a wide range of countries that many Americans know very little about – countries like Kyrgyzstan, Benin, the Maldives, Indonesian Papua New Guinea, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Yemen and Sri Lanka to name a few. Our students get to know each other very quickly and look after the newcomers, making for a lively mix.

4. How important would you say accreditation is when choosing a MATESOL program?

Accreditation is important for ensuring that a MATESOL program is supported institutionally and reviewed externally for rigor and overall quality. For example, our  program is reviewed as part of the larger College every ten years by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. We’re held accountable for standards related to the qualifications of our faculty, assessment policies, student facilities, and so on. However, someone choosing a MATESOL program should also look for some other, specific commonsense indicators. For example, are the faculty of that program active in the field? Do you see their names at major conferences like TESOL and the American Association of Applied Linguistics? Do the core faculty have PhD degrees? Look at the website of the program and its course descriptions; what approach and methodology does it espouse? Ask around - What have you heard about the program from alumni or other professionals whose advice you may seek? Do its graduates have leadership positions within their institutions?  You need to look beyond advertising – a proliferation of ads on the web doesn’t necessarily tell you much about the program.

5. There is some debate as to whether or not Online MATESOL degrees are as worthwhile as traditional MATESOL degrees. What steps does Saint Michael’s take to ensure that online students are receiving the same education that they'd receive in a classroom?

First of all, we don’t offer a fully online degree. We realize that some of the countries where our students hope to be hired – Saudi Arabia, for example, and some European countries – will not recognize such degrees. Also, we realize that the uniqueness of Saint Mike’s MATESOL program depends to a large extent on the qualities I just described – its inviting campus location and lifestyle, which would be hard to replicate online. At the same time, we acknowledge that not all our target students could afford to come and live in Vermont for a year or two while they earn their degree. Some of our most promising students may be mid-career, working overseas  or in faraway states during the academic year, and we need to accommodate them. So in 2012 we  came up with a plan for the best of both worlds – a hybrid program, comprising a six-week summer residency at the beginning and end, with the intervening fall and spring – only one third of the program - online. During the first summer, our ‘hybrid’ students get to know each other, their campus-based peers, and their professors face-to-face. They can focus intensively on their first-semester required courses, including a local practicum, and engage fully with the MATESOL campus community. In the next two ‘online’ semesters, they will work with some of the same classmates since our online courses are also quite popular as electives among the local students. The same professors who teach online also teach on campus, so pedagogical consistency is ensured.  We are lucky to have among our faculty an expert in Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL), who is well-known in the TESOL field. She keeps us up to date with best practices for online delivery and has guided us in the effective use of learning management systems as well as Web conferencing systems with audio and video to maximize interaction and simulate the physical classroom as closely as possible. We limit online class size to 15 students or fewer, helping to maintain the collegial relationships built during the summer. Then, in the second summer semester, the hybrid and campus students reunite in Vermont for their final courses and the closing celebrations. So, with all this careful planning, we preserve the integrity of the Saint Michael’s MATESOL program while harnessing the advantages of online access; and so far it has worked well. In fact, we’ve found that the addition of more experienced students situated around the country and the world has added a valuable dimension and broadened the horizons of our on-campus cohort.     

6. What are the advantages to earning a MATESOL degree in general?

In general, the MATESOL degree is a good all-purpose qualification. Overseas, our alumni find careers in colleges and universities; depending on the country, the MATESOL is often enough to set you up for a senior academic position after a few years. In the U.S., the MATESOL opens the way to career jobs at intensive English language centers, both commercial and university-based; at community colleges and adult education centers, or perhaps most frequently of all, in K-12 education. For public schools, you’ll also need a state-approved teaching license, which can be earned in combination with the MATESOL degree; but if you enjoy working with children, it’s worth the extra time and expense. Careers in public school education probably offer the most security and long-term benefits within our field, and as the population of new Americans continues to grow in most states, the need for teachers of English learners continues to grow.

7. Does Saint Michael’s offer job placement for students who graduate in MATESOL?

We don’t offer direct job placement; this would be very hard to guarantee. However,  our recommendations go a long way, and in my 19 years at Saint Mike’s I have hardly ever heard of any graduates in good standing who couldn’t find a good job soon after graduation. Internationally, we work closely with a few very well-respected institutions that recruit directly from Saint Michael’s or give preference to our graduates.  Within the U.S., we do advise our students that they should be open to leaving Vermont, since it has a relatively small population of English learners. But the Saint Mike’s MATESOL degree has a good reputation that carries far beyond Vermont, and offers a pretty safe job-hunting advantage.

8. What type of financial aid packages are available for students in TESOL? Are there any fellowships, grants and scholarships available?

Some of the larger, research  universities can offer assistantships to their graduate students. Unfortunately, as a small, tuition-based private college, we are not in a position to offer more than one MATESOL assistantship per year. We have some arrangements in place for advanced standing or transfer of credits from other institutions, and our Master’s International Program offers eight credits of advance standing for Peace Corps placement. Beyond these possibilities for limited tuition relief, financial assistance is mostly in the form of federal loans, for which we direct applicants to the Saint Mike’s Financial Aid office. Frankly, many of our Vermont-based students prefer to minimize their loans by working outside the College as tutors and teaching assistants in schools, or in more casual part-time work. This is possible since our fall and spring classes are all in the evening.

9. Do you have any advice for students enrolling in a MATESOL program for the first time, or even those considering a career in TESOL?

First, see if the field is for you! Take a respectable short-term TESOL certificate program such as our own Diploma; apply for a short-term position or volunteer opportunity to teach English overseas or at home with refugees or new Americans, and see if the TESOL bug bites. Then, if you decide you’d like to earn a Master’s degree, check the place out first. Come and meet the professors; take a tour; visit a class, and talk to the students that you meet. I’ve found that prospective students who take the time to do this are often our happiest in the program because they are sure they have a good fit. Once you’re committed and accepted, contact your advisor ahead of time to plan your coursework, and stay in touch with him or her throughout the program. Take the time to make friends! Graduate students often have busy lives beyond academia, and it’s tempting to compartmentalize. But if you can allow yourself to relax into the social life of the MATESOL program, you will get much more out of it, including a network of lifelong friendships around the world, and good guidance from peers or professors who may have been where you want to go in your career.

10. What do you enjoy most about your position at Saint Michael’s?

It’s never dull! Every year is as unique as the different students who join us. I started out in the TESOL field because I enjoyed traveling and meeting people from different cultures, and it keeps getting better in that regard. We have time to know our students well in the year or two they are with us, and the connection continues long after they leave. In many cases, our students consider the MATESOL program a life-changing event, and it’s very gratifying to know that we have been a part of it!

For more information on the TESOL programs offered at Saint Michael’s College, visit them online:

Thank you Elizabeth, for sharing and participating in this piece.

That concludes our interview!