Project ExCEL Empowers Students to Break through Language Barriers

Brian Stevens (Left) and Laura Faria-Tancinco (right) standing next to a Project ExCEL poster
Rhode Island College Impact

Project ExCEL — Excellence in College for English Learners — supports multilingual and bilingual students by providing academic and nonacademic support.

In the summer of 2013, Project ExCEL came to life at Rhode Island College, providing a pathway for non-English speakers to enter higher education. It was the initiative of Andrés Ramírez, Ph.D., a former RIC TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) professor and former coordinator of the ESL Intensive program, and Brian Stevens ’01, M.A. ’05, assistant director of the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.

Project ExCEL, which stands for Excellence in College for English Learners, is a program that supports multilingual and bilingual students by providing academic and nonacademic support.
For Ramirez, the seed of the project came from a conversation he had with Hope High School teacher Pamela Ardizzone. “She told me that among her students there were many who were academically outstanding even without being completely fluent in the English language,” Ramirez recalls. “I told Pamela, ‘I can only imagine how great they would be if they knew English.”
Stevens felt a similar sense of necessity when a student approached him after an admissions presentation at Cranston High School East and explained that she was not given a pass to attend the assembly because she was an ESL student.  

“Dr. Ramirez and I spent countless hours reviewing research and writing proposals to build a program that would not only provide access to higher education for these students but that acknowledged and honored their accomplishments as students,” says Stevens. “They needed to be recognized for the amazing contributions that they would make to the campus community. We envisioned it as an honors program.”

Project ExCEL became a pioneer, with the intention to really look at college applications differently and highlight the strengths of bilingual and multilingual students who could bring another perspective – along with their many talents and diversity – to the college community. No one else was doing anything like it at the time.
“Once the word got out, we were getting calls to come to schools to meet with some of the best students in the state who had previously thought CCRI was their only option,” Stevens says. “We created a network of partners in local schools who shared our excitement and enthusiasm for Project ExCEL and our commitment to rethinking what it means to be ‘college ready.’”
Laura Faria-Tancinco, the current coordinator of Project ExCEL through Professional Studies and Continuing Education, believes that “for an institution like RIC, it is essential to have programs like this.” She adds, “There are many high achieving bilingual students; having Project ExCEL ensures that we are giving attention to students with abilities that set them apart from the crowd and making sure we don’t miss any talent.”
To be a member of Project ExCEL a student must be enrolled in a degree program at Rhode Island College. They receive both academic and nonacademic support throughout their tenure at RIC; incoming freshmen can take a four-credit course in addition to their general education classes and any bilingual or multilingual student at RIC can enroll in the one-credit ExCEL course, which they can repeat as needed. 

Nonacademic support is provided by Project ExCEL student mentors and RIC’s Learning for Life (L4L) office, which offers assistance with housing and food insecurity, school supplies, counseling, financial aid and other needs. For academic support, incoming freshmen are advised by the Preparatory Enrollment Program at RIC and the ExCEL classes allow students to receive guidance with assignments, as well as the chance to interact with other bilingual and multilingual students who become part of their peer network. 

Stevens praises Faria-Tancinco, who he says has been more than up for the challenge of continuing and growing this program. “She has been phenomenal in broadening our reach and making Project ExCEL serve a wider range of students. I’m really proud to have been there at the start, but Laura has provided the leadership and vision to sustain it.” He adds, “Project ExCEL is the most important thing I have done in my 17 years at the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. It is the product of students, staff and faculty coming together to do the right thing.”
For Ramírez, a Colombian immigrant who came to the United States to earn his second master’s degree and a doctoral degree in education – and is now an Associate Professor at Florida Atlantic University – leaving a legacy at Rhode Island College was “an absolute pleasure.” He concludes, “I wanted to help people who were doctors or engineers in their country, who came to me and told me that they were tired of cleaning houses all day. I am ecstatic to know that the ExCEL program has been going strong for several years now.”