Santiago Mejia Villegas, a native Colombian, was first exposed to American football, a rare sport in Colombia, during his time on the Alabama campus.“It is impossible to live in the campus during the football season and not getting involved in the Crimson Tide! I had the chance to go to a couple of games in the stadium as well as to the welcoming parade and live that amazing moment like a new fan of Alabama,” he said. “I have made a few friends with whom have been in some cities nearby or in some bars and restaurants here in Tuscaloosa,” he said.
Villegas’ first language is Spanish, and he’s in Tuscaloosa to study English and business through the University of Alabama’s English Language Institute (ELI).
“English is one of the most widely spoken and written languages in the world,” Emily Brown, an English Language Institute instructor at The University of Alabama said. “One of our overall goals is to try and prepare our students for academic study in an American university setting by providing them with the cultural knowledge and awareness they will need to thrive both academically and socially.”
Villegas graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics and continued his postgraduate studies in marketing and finance in Colombia.
“Living here in Alabama but mostly in the UA campus has been an incredible opportunity …
There are so many differences between the way we live in [my] country and the way we live here because we are temporarily a student and we have to face some situations like get used to the food, to stay at the dorm because we don’t have a car or friends to go out with… but at the end everything has become in a new valuable experience,” Villegas said.
During his time at the University, Villegas has been active in the ELI, other international student groups and community church events. This past year, Villegas attended a Thanksgiving event hosted by a local church group where he said he learned cultural pieces he couldn’t have learned in a classroom.
“There it was wonderful people and delicious food and it became in a very good opportunity to know and understand the origin of the holiday and its meaning for the American culture. It was also a place where we found good and friendly people who afterwards has helped us in some casual questions like where to find a barber shop close the campus or stuff like that,” Villegas said.
While there are many people involved in the ELI program, Villegas said he believes not enough people know about it or are even aware of what they do in the program. He said he finds it easier to talk to people in the program because they speak multiple languages.
“We designed [the program] specifically for non-native speakers who live in the Tuscaloosa area and want to improve their language skills,” Brown said.
Brown said the program provides learners with the confidence they need in the English language to pursue opportunities they might not otherwise get the chance to pursue, whether that be personally, professionally, academically or socially.
“For native speakers who don’t quite understand, I tell them [ELI] is similar to when maybe they learned Spanish or French in high school or college. It’s different, however, because our classrooms often include students who speak a variety of different languages,” Brown said.
“Everything about the culture here is different and interesting in some ways, but definitely the friendly character of the people in Alabama is something I will never forget,” Villegas said.