UA's Center for English as a Second Language Turns 50
The innovative language instruction center has built and maintained an elite global reputation.

UA Center for English as a Second Language
Feb. 7, 2018


CESL's inaugural final ceremony for its Intensive English Program with a group of engineers from Mexico in 1970, with CESL advisor Helen Abdulaziz  and the center's first director, Ernestine Neff , holding flowers
CESL's inaugural final ceremony for its Intensive English Program with a group of engineers from Mexico in 1970, with CESL advisor Helen Abdulaziz and the center's first director, Ernestine Neff , holding flowers (left)

In 1968, then-University of Arizona President Richard Harvill connected with an English instructor and graduate student named Frank Pialorsi about running a summer English program for international students.

When Pialorsi asked for some advice about how to develop the program, Harvill responded, "Why don't you just make this the best program in the country?"

With that bold goal in mind, the University's Center for English as a Second Language grew from a modest summer program into a diverse set of language training programs that has attracted scholars from around the world, cementing CESL as an international model that educators in places such as China, Turkey and Qatar have emulated.

A half-century later, CESL remains on the cutting edge of language instruction and teacher training, fulfilling Harvill's international vision as it has trained more than 44,000 students, scholars and professionals from at least 128 countries around the world.

"Over 50 years, CESL has adjusted to changing international challenges and has been an integral and effective engine for internationalization at the UA," said the center's current director, Nick Ferdinandt. "Many international students and alumni give credit to CESL for assisting them in acquiring the English language and cultural tools they needed to succeed at the University and in their careers."

Developing the Core

Building on the summer program, 1970 marked the inception of CESL's core program, the Intensive English Program, or IEP, under the leadership of CESL's first full-time director, Ernestine Neff.

In that year, a group of engineers from Mexico wanting to study engineering in the U.S. asked for intensive instruction in English to prepare themselves for the UA. Soon after, CESL began to attract students from all over the world, becoming one of the first IEPs in the country with enrollments reaching over 500.    

After Neff's retirement, Pialorsi went on to guide the center until 2001. During his tenure, CESL expanded to offer classes and teacher training, both in Tucson and abroad.  

Under Pialorsi's leadership, the UA campus and Tucson community attracted an ever-expanding number and diversity of international students and scholars, many of whom came through CESL before their studies, or who took courses at CESL to improve their English as they worked toward a degree.  

In addition, CESL was awarded and developed specific programs for Hubert H. Humphrey Fellows and Fulbright Scholars. In Pialorsi's 30 years as director, CESL's international student makeup grew, beginning with those close to the UA, such as the Mexican engineers who formed the IEP's first cohort, to a truly international group representing Arabic-speaking countries including Oman, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, as well as Turkey, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and countries across Europe and South America.

Overcoming Difficult Times

After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the process for international students to qualify for study in the U.S. became considerably more difficult, which caused enrollment at programs throughout the country to decrease substantially. Pialorsi retired after the fall 2001 semester, but CESL succeeded in retaining its core faculty and gradually began to build up enrollment again under the guidance of Suzanne Panferov Reese, CESL's director from 2003 to 2017.

"CESL plays a critical role in bringing international students and scholars to campus," Panferov Reese said. "The UA needs international students because they bring many different global perspectives about the world to campus and they afford opportunities for all our students to learn about the world without leaving campus. We want all UA graduates to be interculturally competent and to be successful leaders in the world.

"CESL students bring a level of diversity to our UA classrooms that our students wouldn't otherwise get."

In recent years, CESL has expanded its program offerings, especially in the areas of teacher training and customized programs. Ferdinandt, who took over as director in 2017, developed the ESL/UA "bridge" (the University Track or "U-Track”) program that offers students the opportunity to study ESL and UA credit courses simultaneously.

By 2015, CESL's enrollment again exceeded 500, with classes operating out of three buildings. Throughout the years, CESL has maintained its global reputation as an elite university-based ESL program.   

"Over the last decade, CESL has diversified into new ventures, such as creating a noncredit teacher training program and a pathway program to meet student demand and the changing international English language market," Ferdinandt said.

CESL Today and Tomorrow

As it turns 50, CESL is the only Intensive English Program in the state of Arizona accredited by the Commission on English Language Accreditation. Enrollment in CESL's core programs typically ranges from 150 to 250 students in a given session, with students hailing from more than 25 countries. With this number, CESL is able to serve students well and continues to be a pipeline for international students who wish to study at the UA.

While most current CESL students plan to matriculate into a UA degree program, some make the trip to Tucson just to study English. In CESL's part-time community program, enrollment has expanded to serve the English learning needs of 100 to 150 community members each eight-week session.

As the UA's reach expands outward, so do CESL's programs. In partnership with the UA Office of International Education, CESL is beginning to offer English language instruction to University partners abroad, including at UA "microcampuses," which are joint-degree programs that are either running or in development in a number of locations.     

CESL also is actively recruiting abroad for students to come to Tucson. By fall 2018, CESL expects to receive more students from countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam.  

CESL also continues to expand its teacher training opportunities, including programs such as the Content Area Teacher Training program, which trains professors in non-English-speaking countries how to adapt to teach their subjects in English.

"The future is bright for CESL," Ferdinandt said. "The center is poised to continue to meet international demand for English education and adjust to new challenges. the next 50 years will see expansion in partnership with the UA's microcampus initiatives to bring CESL's excellence to people all over the world. 

"We celebrate the 50 years of CESL with great pride and anticipate hitting the century mark with continued success."

Extra info

CESL has a number of events planned in 2018 to commemorate the 50th anniversary:

  • CESL International Festival — Feb. 13, 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on the UA Mall. This annual celebration showcases international students' cultures to the UA and Tucson communities through food, drink, music, art and dance.
  • Spring Final Ceremony — May 10, 5 to 10 p.m. in the Sonora Room of the Student Union Memorial Center
  • CESL Reunion Dinner — May 11 at Westward Look Resort
  • CESL Open House — May 12, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the CESL Building
  • CESL 50th Anniversary Celebration — May 12, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the CESL Building


Resources for the media

Eric Swedlund

UA College of Humanities