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IMG Academy’s Intensive English/ ESL programs help open the world to international student-athletes

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Cheng-Tsung Pan, a native of Taiwan, reached as high as third on the leaderboard of the 2013 US Open, but his journey in golf began with the IMG Academy Intensive English/ESL program

Cheng-Tsung Pan has had an impressive career in golf at only 21 years of age. This year, Pan qualified for the prestigious U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club. At the event, he reached as high as third on the leaderboard before finishing T-45, playing alongside some of the game’s greats like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Ernie Els. All this came after beginning 2013 as the top-ranked collegiate golfer in the nation as a member of the University of Washington men’s golf program. What many do not realize is that Pan arrived at IMG Academy from Taiwan as a sophomore in 2008, unable to speak English and with minimal golf training. Through his successful progression in IMG Academy’s Intensive English/English as a Second Language (ESL) program, delivered via the school’s dedicated University & Language Center, Pan was able to better comprehend the coaching instruction he received, and within three years, rose as high as fourth overall in the Golfweek/ rankings.

Cheng Tsung Pan signs with Washington in 2010

“The golf program at IMG Academy is great, and by far the best program in the world for players under 18 years old,” Pan remarked of his IMG Academy experience (pictured right with Coach Shane Reiser, signing with the University of Washington in 2010). “Through IMG’s English language program, I was able to understand the coaches better, and when something was wrong with my game, I could identify it and fix it, but I was also able to communicate better to get the most out of my training.”

With more than 800 student-athletes, of which nearly two-thirds represent 85 different nations, the Intensive English program plays a pivotal role within IMG Academy’s athletic and academic training programs. English proficiency fosters greater comprehension of instruction both in the classroom and on the field of play, and helps international students pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL, so that they can qualify to attend top American universities and continue their academic and athletic pursuits.

“It is critical that student-athletes learn English to survive in their sport, but also to gain admission to colleges,” said Carol Binder, Academic Coordinator of IMG Academy’s Intensive English/ESL Program. “We’ve been working very hard to become a much more integrated part of IMG Academy, and to help each of our students feel that integration, regardless of their educational level, because it strengthens their resolve to succeed.”

The program has been a part of IMG Academy for many years, beginning as a University of Miami satellite program. Two years ago, the program was integrated fully into IMG Academy and was expanded to include more options to accommodate students with different levels of proficiency, and provide more course offerings for math, science and social studies.

Binder described how the program helps the students to stay focused academically, which, in turn, helps them stay focused on their athletic endeavors. She referred to the example of India’s Satnam Singh, a 15-year-old, 7’2”, basketball player who arrived in 2010 as part of the IMG Reliance Student-Athlete Program. Binder says that Singh’s main goal was to do a media interview without a translator. Naturally, with his height and unique profile, Singh has drawn a high level of media interest since arriving in the U.S. Nearly three years later, Singh has conducted interviews with the likes of ESPN the Magazine and Sports Illustrated without the assistance of a translator. Perhaps more importantly for his personal development, Singh has become a popular student among his peers who now understand his quick wit and charming personality.

Singh’s teammate on the National Varsity team and fellow 7-footer, Meng Xiang Yu (pictured left), represents yet another example of success with IMG Academy’s Intensive English/ESL program. Xiang Yu came to IMG Academy from China in 2012 and credits the program for how well he has developed as a player in less than two years. 

“If I didn’t go to ESL, I really don’t think I could speak English right now,” Xiang Yu said. “The first three months I was here, my teammates would be joking and laughing, but I would not understand anything they were saying. So if they were laughing, I would just laugh without knowing what was funny. Now I understand them and can actually laugh with them.”

Today, Xiang Yu is the one telling the jokes. He is entering his senior season, but was excited to say that he is able to watch American television and read newspapers on his own. Xiang Yu described how the program started out by helping him through simple basketball words, and quickly advanced into writing and grammar. Xiang Yu believes that English has opened the world to him, and has enabled him to make more friends and eventually reach the college of his dreams.

Carol Binder agreed with Xiang Yu’s belief on how English opened the world up to him. She remarked, “Learning English opens a lot of doors for the students, and you can go anywhere in the world with it. You can talk to people almost anywhere in the world with English, because there is always someone, everywhere, who speaks the language.”

Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka (pictured right, competing at the 2013 French Open), who will celebrate his 18th birthday in September, arrived at IMG Academy three years ago without the ability to speak English, but can now play in tournaments anywhere in the world. “[IMG Academy] has great facilities, strong players to practice with and I knew I had to get better in English. If I train and study in the U.S., I can go to a tournament anywhere,” Yoshihito said in a 2012 interview. Since then, Nishioka has gone on to win his first professional event, the Mexico F3 Futures, earlier this year and reach the ITF junior rankings top-20.

Though learning English helps the student-athletes in their academic pursuits, the most common commendation for the program is how it helps student-athletes become more independent on the playing field.

“In my first year, every time the coach spoke I had to ask a friend to translate it for me into Spanish, and I would make a lot of mistakes. But now, I understand much faster and can read on the field much faster, communicate with coaches much better, which has made me a better player,” remarked Carlos Hurtado of Caracas, Venezuela. Hurtado, a standout on the IMG Academy U18 soccer team, recently completed his Intensive English education at IMG Academy. Entering his senior year, Hurtado is on track to complete high school on time and enroll in an American college.

Similarly, India’s Pooja Ambastha (pictured left), who came to IMG Academy with Satnam Singh, cites the ESL program for helping her to succeed on the court, in the classroom and socially. Now, Ambastha is looking forward to a potential college scholarship, but will also have a role on the Indian Women’s National Basketball team.

The program is also accessible to student-athletes who arrive on campus for a year or less, such as post-graduates and camp participants. One post-graduate, Ignacio Dopereiro of Logroño, Spain (pictured right), took notice of the successes of past IMG Academy golfers like Cheng-Tsung Pan before him, and chose to attend IMG Academy over a number of other programs.

“It’s the only place where you can learn the language, and intensely focus on improving your game, so it was an easy decision,” remarked Dopereiro. “I have personally changed a lot since I came here. It’s difficult to come to another country…but I’ve become more mature and know myself better. The experience is good for your life, which is good for your game. Being more independent with my game, I’m able to understand my weaknesses better to improve.”

For Dopereiro, the overall environment at IMG Academy and ability to focus equally intensely on sports and language skills is what counted the most: “The ESL program here is great and you learn a lot, but it’s not only about the classes, it’s the environment this place provides and being able to be around people who speak so many languages, including English, so you can hang out with them and try to speak the language. The life you have here with your golf group and your environment helps so much.”

For more information about IMG Academy’s Intensive English/ESL offerings for international students, please visit:

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