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ELI Director Scott Stevens Retires After 42 Years

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Scott Stevens Headshot

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The Collins dictionary defines a “leader” as “a person who rules, guides, or inspires others.” Scott Stevens, the former director of UD’s English Language Institute (ELI), is a leader in the true sense of the word. Stevens, who retired in December 2023, spent 42 years guiding the ELI toward greatness, changing the way intensive English programs are delivered and classes are taught, and working with lawmakers to establish a national standard for quality. In the process, the ELI has become the premier program of its kind in the United States, and continues to make an impact on countries around the world.

The ELI provides English language instruction for general language learners, degree-seeking students, and business and legal professionals from countries around the globe. Courses are offered year-round in a variety of different tracks and programs. The ELI also offers training for teachers who will teach English as a Second language in their home countries.

At any given time, several hundred students are in the Intensive English Program (IEP), making it one of the largest IEP programs in the country. Graduations are held three times a year, and many students go on to matriculate as full-time UD students. In fact, university data shows that 50% of all international undergraduates matriculating at UD come through the ELI.

Stevens stepped into his role in 1984, a few years after Louis Arena founded the ELI. Under Stevens’ leadership, tens of thousands of English language learners from more than 50 countries have passed through its doors.

Stevens also generated a multitude of long-lasting partnerships between UD and international governments and institutions. The ELI continually receives students and ESL teachers through special programs in Oman, The UAE, Japan, South Korea, China, Brazil and more. In recent years, he brokered an agreement with Colombia’s first and most important study abroad sponsorship program, COLFUTURO, making UD the organization’s first U.S. university partner.

“Scott Stevens’ counterparts across the U.S. considered him a leader and champion of international education. He made a big impact on the field of ESL as a whole and was perceived as a leader among all the other university-governed English language program directors across the country,” remarked Denise Davis, ELI’s senior associate in strategic marketing and recruitment. Davis worked with Stevens for several years when she was director of international programs at UC Irvine before coming to UD.

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​Scott Stevens talking to students

​Scott Stevens introducing new students to the ELI at orientation in July 2023.​

​​Change across the nation

When Stevens first became an ESL teacher in 1981, the occupation garnered little respect; instructors were poorly paid with few benefits and given limited opportunities to climb the faculty ladder. Teaching facilities were often stowed away in basements or attics, reflecting the low priority IEPs had in the eyes of universities. He set out to change the field.

One of Stevens’ biggest contributions came from his advocacy before the U.S. Department of Education. Prior to 2000, IEP programs were not held to one quality standard. As a result, international students were often taken advantage of by for-profit programs. Scott and his advocacy team fought for policy that would require IEPs to meet quality standards through an accreditation process, which would ultimately improve programs and protect students. It took seven years for the bill to pass, but after various hurdles, President Obama signed it into law.

Jeff Hutcheson, Director of Advocacy and Public Policy at TESOL International Association, got to witness Scott’s impact first hand.

“One of the great things, among many, about Scott is that he was the same, whether in the classroom or in the halls of Congress. He always advocated for the profession, for the educators, for the programs, and especially for the students, and it was his local advocacy in Delaware, through Senator Tom Carper’s office, that made the accreditation bill even possible. His story was consistently passionate, even in the face of the opposition, and it was his leadership to which the team aspired, leaving a legacy that continues today.”

“In my four decades in the field, I have had the opportunity to work alongside wonderful colleagues advocating for liveable salaries and career ladders for faculty; campaigning for first-rate teaching facilities and cultural centers; fighting for greater respect for the field through accreditation and impactful research; globalizing campuses and thereby rendering IEPs central to their college missions,” Stevens said.

“Mine was just a voice in the choir, but we made beautiful music together,” he continued, in a story in the ELI’s 2023 edition of the Interactions magazine.

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Scott Stevens bonding with students

​Scott Stevens bonding with MATESL (Master's in Teaching English as a Second Language) students from Hunan Normal University (2023).​

Leading with laughter

While Stevens advocated nationally to change the academic quality of the programs, he ensured that UD’s program focused on the success of its students. Core services such as private tutoring, cultural activities and student picnics have been a part of the program since the beginning.

“The two dimensions bring a sense of community and intimacy to the ELI that have always been the hallmark of the program,” Scott said.

He also leaves behind a legacy of quirky traditions and a deep empathy for his students. Stevens was particularly known for vibrant graduation celebrations, which included student-based performances and a unique speech for each ceremony. After his speech, the most anticipated ritual would follow: the gifting of the coveted “ELI Honors T-shirt.”

This entailed honors students marching onto a special “podium” (a tiny, but mighty stool carved out of a tree and gifted to Stevens by staff members

Abdallah Celestin and Aura Draper

) one-by-one and waving their t-shirts to the “adoring” crowd to the tune of Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” Stevens would then proclaim: “This is no ordinary piece of cotton-polyester cloth, but the highly esteemed, one-of-a-kind, often-coveted-but-never-emulated, ELI Honors T-shirt.” And chants of “T-shirt… T-shirt… T-shirt…” would fill the auditorium. It was a silly, light-hearted performance, but a true testament to the magic of Scott Stevens’ leadership; the heart of the ELI lives in its connection with students, and Stevens was not afraid to get goofy.

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​Scott Stevens standing on podium

​Scott Stevens standing on the famous "podium" during the awarding of the Honors T-shirts at graduation.​

Onward and upward

In Scott Stevens’ stead, Cheryl Ernst has taken over as the new director of the ELI as of January 2024.

Ernst acknowledges that Stevens was the “ patriarch and architect of the ELI,” and she looks forward to what lies ahead: “Laughter and joy, cross-cultural relationships, inbound study abroad, foundation-year programs, credit and non-credit programs, joint programs across campus, teacher training and dual degree programs, and programming across Delaware, and the world.”

Article by Kaitlyn Diehl

February 14, 2024​

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Stevens, who retired in December 2023, spent 42 years guiding the ELI toward greatness, changing the way intensive English programs are delivered and classes are taught, and working with lawmakers to establish a national standard for quality.
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