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Alumna launches petition to reform Gateway Scholar Program

Panny Tao ’21 spearheaded a petition to reform the Gateway Scholar Program at Brandeis and remove the current Director, Vinodini Murugesan, due to the discrimination and humiliation of Chinese students within the program by its director, according to the petition. According to the student accounts in the petition, Murugesan verbally abused students in the Gateway Scholar Program. 

In the petition, it outlines the experiences of nineteen students, all of whom were Gateway Scholars who had negative experiences in the program. Many of the accounts include incidents where the students were verbally abused by Murugesan. Some students received emails where they were told they would not succeed at Brandeis. Others shared that they felt Murugesan used an “aggressive, condescending and unprofessional” tone in her emails to students, according to the petition

The Gateway Scholar Program is run at the university to prepare students who are non-native English speakers for “the rigors of coursework at Brandeis University,” according to the Gateway Scholar Program’s page.  ​​

Tao notes 10 major problems of the program which she suggests be reformed in the petition. The problems include: the “mysterious” admission process; confusing and vague wording; student population and lack of diversity; negative stereotypes and the “Americanization” of Chinese students; impossible expectations; mentors and liaisons; after program tracks and classification of students; failing students and afterward assistance; the cost of the program with no financial aid or scholarship available and Director Murugesan and other upper administrators of the program. 

Tao proposed solutions to the main problems she identified. For the admission process, she suggests making a clear standard for how students are selected for the program. Currently, students who are enrolled in the program come from varying backgrounds with their English proficiency and exposure to the language, making the standard for needing the program unclear, according to the petition. Tao also mentions tricky wording in their acceptance letters into the program. There is no direct wording stating that the program is mandatory, though there is also no opt-out option clearly stated, according to the petition. Tao suggests changing the wording in the acceptance letters to make it more clear for students. 

Another problem identified by Tao is the student population and lack of diversity in the program. Tao noted that the program is advertised as a diverse group of students, however, students upon arriving at the program in recent years have noted a nearly entire Chinese background for students, according to Tao. Tao suggests the program be properly advertised to students to fix this problem. 

Tao attached an image of a contract Gateway Scholars were obligated to sign. Students had to agree to speak only English between the hours of 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays and they must not ask for translation in class, according to the screenshot.  Tao also notes that there is some wording used on the Gateway Scholar website which negatively enforces Chinese stereotypes. 

“The program is designed specifically for students to improve their English proficiency and students should be encouraged to speak English in the program. However, the ways that are designed to force students to speak English are unacceptable, extremely inappropriate and are harmful to students’ confidence,” wrote Tao. 

There are also expectations for students which Tao deemed impossible to achieve. Students are expected to maintain the full course load as well as participate in the Gateway Scholar program where they have mandatory activities. For the peer mentors in the program, Tao suggests not paying students but rather have it be a volunteer activity. This is because it creates a complex in the relationship between mentor and mentee that makes the mentee feel inferior, according to Tao.      

The program commences its first part in the summer going into the scholar’s freshman year. Over the course of the summer, students participate in a six-week English language program that consists of three courses: Critical Reading in the Humanities and Social Science, Analytical Writing and Academic Oral Communication, according to the program’s details page

Students are evaluated at the end of the six-week course to determine their proficiency. If the program deems them to have advanced a sufficient amount in these categories, they can then enroll in a full course load for the fall semester, according to the page

The second part of the program takes place in the fall, this part is only for students who were found to not have advanced enough in their critical thinking, analytical writing and language skills over the summer, according to the page. Students will take additional courses to improve these skills on top of maintaining a full-time Brandeis undergraduate course load. New methods are implemented during the fall semester to teach students these language skills which are “essential for achieving academic success at Brandeis university,” according to the page.

Julie Jette, Senior Associate Provost for Academic Affairs and English Language Programs gave comments to The Hoot about the Gateway Scholar Program. Jette wrote that the university is aware of the concerns raised by students regarding the program.   

According to Jette, “Brandeis also received a second petition that was also signed by students, alumni and parents, that is highly supportive of the program. While one petition was highly critical of the program, the other petition had multiple examples of how helpful the program was for adjusting to Brandeis, helping Gateway Scholars excel in their academic life, making new friendships, and preparing them for life after graduation.”

As a part of the program, gateway scholars are paired with upperclassmen who act as peer mentors; these individuals are referred to as “Gateway Buddies,” according to the page. Gateway Buddies, according to the page, are meant to provide an outlet for students to practice and develop their language skills in a non-academic setting. Gateway scholars are also meant to play a role in helping Gateway Scholar students to acclimate to social life on campus including introducing these students to new friends, clubs and other activities on campus. 

The overall objective of having peer mentors is to “provide gateway scholars with authentic opportunities to speak English in relatively informal settings and to promote the formation of mutually beneficial social bonds between Gateway scholars and American undergraduates at Brandeis,” according to the Buddy Program page.  

In an interview with The Brandeis Hoot, Tao explained that the mentor program students are paid to be the mentors. The mentors get paid $15 an hour, according to Tao, which is higher than most on-campus jobs. 

“There is definitely a sense of superiority that the buddy system is creating. It’s creating a superiority for the American students but for the Chinese students they feel less and less confident and more inferior to their American friends,” said Tao. 

Jette wrote that the university is taking the concerns outlined in the petition “very seriously”. The university is currently examining its current practices regarding the Gateway Scholar Program in order to make adjustments to better fit students and alumni in the future. The program wants to look into their practices to give better clarity to students and families, wrote Jette. 

The petition has received 38 signatures from Gateway Scholars, 257 signatures from students and alumni, 12 signatures of concerned parents and 31 signatures of concerned individuals from other higher education institutions, according to the petition. 


Updated to include quotes on Sep. 16 2021

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