Heidi Vellenga ’93 took her first non-literature English class in professor William Vande Kopple's “Introduction to Linguistics” class. She was hooked.

“All of it was interesting, exploring the aspects of language in a way you only get tangentially by reading,” she said. “Adding an analytic framework to literature captured me from the start.”

Vellenga puts this linguistic love to work as the associate director of the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA) in Alexandria, Virginia. She supervises the national accreditation process for intensive English programs, leading site visits, monitoring trends in the field, and coordinating updates to the standards and policies manuals.

“My field is called applied linguistics, in that we analyze language and put principles to work for teaching and for practical use,” she said.

Starting in the 1950s, educational institutions began demanding a consistent approach to teaching English as a second language, and that need has expanded exponentially with the internationalization of American campuses.

The CEA grew out of practitioners in the field wanting to ensure institutional effectiveness.

“Professionals wanted to know they were truly benefiting students,” Vellenga said. “The standards that we promote become the framework of quality assurance.”

To date, CEA has accredited 327 programs in 12 countries. The U.S. Department of Education recognizes CEA accreditation as its national standard for effective instruction in this field.

“It is interesting that the major expansion of the CEA’s role came through the Department of Homeland Security,” she said. “The 2010 Accreditation Act stated that all persons who came to the U.S, intending to enroll in a full-time English language program, must study at an accredited institution to get a student visa.”

“It’s about bringing people together who would otherwise not know each other. This promotes tolerance, understanding and an openmindedness to another’s thinking.”

“It’s about bringing people together who would otherwise not know each other,” she said. “This promotes tolerance, understanding and an open-mindedness to another’s thinking.”
Heidi Vellenga '93

Vellenga’s path to the top of her field began with a Calvin double major in English and French, including a semester abroad in Grenoble, France. She went on for a master’s in applied linguistics at Indiana University. At the time there was a large influx of Asian students at the school, and Vellenga became interested in Korean-English connections.

She decided to teach abroad, at Taegu University, in a rural part of South Korea.

Vellenga contributed to curriculum design and was the only non-Korean staff member there. She likes to think she experienced the “real Korea” since there were many persons there who did not speak English.

“These experiences were important because I better understood what international kids go through in the U.S., the challenges they have in learning language and culture. It’s not just the language, but how language goes along with culture. Nobody tells you the nuances of culture, but there is confusion or anger if you don’t respond correctly.”

Vellenga returned to the States for work at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan, and later at Indiana and Penn State universities. She earned a doctoral degree in applied linguistics at Northern Arizona University.

She loves the life-affirming practicalities of her work—language with a purpose.

“You might ask a person new to the language, ‘Do you have a Kleenex?’ and they might take that question at face value and simply respond, ‘Yes.’ But that’s not all of what you were asking. Form and function are not always clearly aligned,” Vellenga noted.

“Errors in grammar, errors in spelling—these are all things one can master. However, a mistake in pragmatics means one is labeled as rude or as having no manners when they did not understand the cultural context,” she said.

She believes that displaying care and attention to those of other cultures and making a sincere attempt to understand is compatible with faith.