MU’s Executive Director, Center for English Language Learning talks about his life abroad and in the United States.

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Mark S. Algren, Executive Director, Center for English Language Learning, University of Missouri

On his recent achievement of winning the TESOL International Association 50 at 50 award, the MU International admissions team sat down for a Q&A session with Mark Algren, the Director of MU’s Center for English Language Learning on his life as a mentor, teacher and administrator.

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Mark with a portrait of his great-great grandfather, Per Hakan Svensen (born 1811).

Q: If you could give me a bit of background on your award, and how does the committee making the decision work and the criteria they look into?

Mark Algren: “The TESOL International Association 50 at 50 award was created by the Board to recognize “individuals who have made a significant contribution to the TESOL profession during the past 50 years.”  Actually, only 49 recipients were named out of over 250 nominations; The 1st awardee was the late Dr. James E. Alatis, founding member and first Executive Secretary of the association.  Nominations were solicited from the membership, and the 50th Anniversary Committee worked in secrecy to make their selections so that there was no “campaigning” or undue influence from outside the committee.”

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In 1962, Mark’s best friend, whose father worked for an oil company, lived in Africa and sent Mark letters and pictures.  That’s where the interest in international things started.

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On study abroad in London, spring 1975.

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Mark worked as a logger in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state. 

Q: Perhaps you could talk about how you got into this field when you were just getting started?

Mark Algren: “My interest in international education started when I was about 7 years old.  The father of a friend from my small hometown (Monmouth, Illinois) worked for Mobile Oil and they lived in several countries around the world.  His letters and pictures sparked that interest.  I spent a study abroad term at City University of London in 1975, and wanted to teach abroad as a result of that.  After college, while working as a volunteer logger at Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat in the mountains of Washington state, I was introduced to opportunities with the Lutheran Church to teach English in the Far East.  In August, 1979, I started teaching in Hong Kong at Kowloon Lutheran Middle School.  I quickly realized I wasn’t doing a very good job teaching English due to my lack of ESL teaching knowledge and skills.  After returning to the USA, I read some books on the topic and went on to get a master’s degree in teaching ESL from Southern Illinois University – Carbondale.”

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In Tienanmen Square.

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Presenting a workshop in at Vietnam National University, Hanoi.

Q: Our readers would love to know more about your experiences of having worked abroad, as well as your work at the University of Kansas?

Mark Algren: “I wanted to teach in China, but it was difficult to get a job there at that time, so I ended up in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in May 1982.  That led to 12 years in the Kingdom where I taught and was a program administrator.  I had two jobs related to the Saudi military, but the majority of my time was spent at King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals in Dhahran.  In addition to teaching, I held several administrative positions and eventually served as director of the 1,600-student Orientation English Program.  I also assisted KFUPM administration with founding and opening Ha’il Community College (now University of Ha’il) in 1998. I last worked in the Middle East in the United Arab Emirates as director of the Intensive English Program at the American University of Sharjah; Sharjah is one of the seven emirates and is very close to Dubai.

In the United States, I spent two decades as a teacher and administrator in the Applied English Center at the University of Kansas (1993-2014).  Some of that time was on leave while I was in the Middle East.  I taught a variety of courses including special courses for visiting students and graduate students, and served on a university committee responsible for international student recruiting.  I was appointed director of the AEC in 2010, and left Lawrence to come to MU on November 1, 2014.  I’ll always be grateful to the AEC for the opportunities I had to expand my professional career at the university and in the field.  They supported my work in the TESOL International Association as a Director, a Conference Chair, and eventually as President.  Through my work in TESOL, I built a global network of contacts and I was privileged to make presentations in 18 countries on four continents.”

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Mark and colleague with a friend in the desert.

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In Baghdad, Iraq – a member of the first delegation of U.S. educators to visit Iraq almost 30 years.

Q: You joined MU in November 2014, walk us through the various projects and developments you have been involved on campus since then?

Mark Algren: “MU, the Center for English Language Learning (CELL) and Columbia have all been fabulous!!  I especially want to say that the faculty and staff of CELL have been great to work with, and I have had great support from my boss, Dr. James K. Scott, Interim Vice Provost for International Programs and Director of the International Center.  We’ve made many significant changes in the Center since the start of 2015, and that much work can’t be accomplished by one person.  Everyone has to participate.  We’ve lived through remodeling our facilities in McReynolds Hall, and now we are preparing our accreditation self-study for CEA: The Commission on English Language Program Accreditation.  We’re starting the accreditation process this summer and it will take about 2 years to complete.  I’ve met campus leaders in all offices that we have contact with, and each one has been supportive.  At the end of each meeting, each person has ended with almost the same statement: ‘Let me know how I can help.’ You can’t ask for more support than that.”

Q: Share with us some of challenges that you find in your field of work on a day to day basis?

Mark Algren: “My biggest challenge is time; there’s never enough time to do all the things that you want as quickly as you would like.  I think the biggest challenge, but also the greatest joy and reward, in any educational setting, is our students.  Our students are wonderful, but they are adjusting to living in a new culture.  I’ve adjusted to living in another culture myself, and I made a lot of cross-cultural mistakes, and fortunately the host-culture people were forgiving.  All of us in international education, especially in language teaching, have to remember that.  We help our students not only learn English, but also learn about American and U.S. academic culture.  Beyond this, in my particular job, it’s the juggling of all the aspects of the position in running a Center: dealing with personnel, budget, publicity, and student recruiting, as well as going to meetings, giving direction, channeling information and processing paperwork.”

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Mark Algren (Executive Director, Center for English Language Learning) and Lily Sorenson (Associate Director and Director of the Intensive English Program) represent the University of Missouri at an education fair in Manama, Bahrain; March 2016.

Q: What is your vision for the Center for English Language Learning (CELL) going ahead?

Mark Algren: “In addition to accreditation, which requires a plan for continuous program development and improvement, we are moving toward becoming a member of a prestigious consortium of university-governed English language programs, UCIEP.  We are already a member of EnglishUSA, and these memberships, coupled with accreditation and our involvement with our international and regional professional associations will raise CELL’s and Mizzou’s visibility and reputation nationally and internationally in the field of teaching English to university-bound students.  CELL has two main programs: the pre-university Intensive English Program and the English Language Support Program (undergraduate English courses and a speaking course for grad students).  We are expanding into short term contractual programs.  Our teaching focuses on academic English, so we are interested in developing professional development programs for English language teachers from other countries.  There is huge demand in this area from the U.S. Department of State, ministries of education, universities and high schools, and other organizations.  We received our first grant through which we will provide training to four English teachers coming to Columbia from Southern Technical University in Basra, Iraq.  We also want to serve MU as a resource for information about the language needs of international students.  CELL is also working with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions on developing complementary international student recruiting plans.

It’s an exciting time to be in international education at MU, and I couldn’t be happier to be here with these students and my colleagues, advancing the mission of the University of Missouri, helping to bring the world to MU, and representing MU to the world.”

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