Published August 17, 2016
On a warm July Wednesday, 30 international students approach the boat launch at Lake LaSalle, the water sparkling in the abundant summer sunshine. The students excitedly chat in their native languages as they gather near the dock, ready to canoe and kayak for the first time.
“Does anyone here know how to walk on water?” jokes Russ Crispell, director of outdoor pursuits in the Office of Student Life.
Students look to each other and laugh. They shake their heads and Crispell begins his presentation, lifting a life jacket from one of the size-ordered piles on the ground next to him.
Most of the students have never been on the water before; some don’t know how to swim. Crispell emphasizes the importance of wearing the flotation device, showing students how to adjust the straps for a secure fit.
He then grabs a canoe paddle, indicating the proper way to hold it. He does the same with a kayak paddle, showing students how to steer the respective vessels.
For Nouf Alosaimi, the demonstration serves as a refresher. She came to the United States from Saudi Arabia almost two years ago, and she kayaked for the first time last summer.
“When I first tried, it was amazing, you know,” Alosaimi says. “I hadn’t tried in Saudi Arabia.”
Colleen Maloney-Berman, program director of the Intensive English Program in UB’s English Language Institute, organized the excursion for students as part of IEP’s Warm Weather Wednesdays, a spinoff of a past university-wide summer program that organized activities to encourage students, faculty and staff to enjoy the North Campus during the summer months.
Maloney-Berman says the IEP had taken part in those Warm Weather Wednesday events “to give our students a chance to use English with native speakers in social contexts that might be novel for them.”
The IEP helps students improve their English language skills before they begin their studies at UB or at other American colleges and universities. This year’s summer session includes 60 students from China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, Brazil, Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan and Democratic Republic of Congo.
IEP’s Wednesday programs give students a break from the classroom — where they spend five hours a day — to enjoy the Buffalo summer and experience a facet of American culture they haven’t tried before.
“One Saudi Arab woman, who couldn’t wait to paddle a canoe for the first time, told me that Lake LaSalle was the largest body of water she’d ever been on,” Maloney-Berman recalls from one of the Warm Weather Wednesday events last summer.
IEP students earlier this summer created multicolored sand art and took part in a sidewalk chalk activity. On Flag Day in June, they crafted wrist bands featuring their home countries’ flag colors. Upcoming events include “Yoga for ESL” and calligraphy lessons taught by IEP students whose first languages — among them Arabic, Chinese, Persian and Japanese — feature calligraphy in their written forms.
As Crispell’s crash course in water safety comes to an end, students leave their bags on a nearby picnic table and strap on life jackets. A majority of the students approach the dock and get into a canoe or kayak.
They paddle — hesitantly, at first — toward the center of the lake. Most stop to simply float and chat while admiring picturesque views of Greiner Hall, Letchworth Woods, the pillars at Baird Point and the academic spine.
Alosaimi stands back from the dock, and Maloney-Berman asks her to go for a canoe ride. As they launch into the lake, Pam Khuansiri successfully steers her canoe to the shoreline, climbing out of the boat.
“She looks like a professional,” Crispell remarks.
Khuansiri, a native of Thailand, unstraps her life jacket and laughs as her classmates and instructors congratulate her on a successful landing.
“In my country, they have canoeing, but I never tried,” Khuansiri says.
She says she was only “a little bit” nervous when she first got into the boat, but it was smooth sailing once on the water.
As Khuansiri gathers her bag to head back to class, Crispell mentions that canoeing and kayaking are free to students, along with faculty and staff, throughout the year.
Crispell turns back to the water, counting the canoes and kayaks as students return to shore. He notices one is unaccounted for, and Maloney-Berman spots two backpacks remaining on the picnic table.
Together, they realize two students are still on the water — and out of sight. Crispell sets out to look for the students, who likely turned a corner and lost track of time.
Soon, a canoe appears from underneath the bridge on the Audubon Parkway, where Lake LaSalle stretches behind Greiner Hall and the Ellicott Complex. The intrepid students, both from China, paddle to shore and recount finding “the end of the lake.”
Their adventure is surely the first of many on campus, and their shared excitement can only mean they’ll be back on the water soon enough.