ESP Project Leader Profile: Sandra Zappa-Hollman

Hello, ESPers worldwide!

In this ESP Project Leader Profile, it is my pleasure to introduce you to Sandra Zappa-Hollman, who was introduced to me by another ESP project leader, Ismaeil Fazel. Her story is an inspiring one of bringing together experts in various disciplines to create a new English for specific academic purposes (ESAP) program for students coming to the University of British Columbia from all over the world.

Sandra Zappa-Hollman, MA and PhD in TESL, is the Director of the Academic English Program at Vantage College, University of British Columbia (UBC), where she is also an assistant professor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education. Before moving to Canada from Argentina, Sandra taught EFL for several years at the elementary, high school, and college levels. She has been working at UBC since 2001, teaching a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses and across programs (teacher education, MA and PhD in TESL, exchange programs for international students, etc.). Her research interests include English for specific academic purposes, academic discourse socialization, second language writing, intercultural competence development, systemic functional grammar, collaborations between language and disciplinary specialists, and integrated language and content instruction. She has published in TESOL Quarterly, The Canadian Modern Language Review, the Encyclopaedia of Applied Linguistics (among others); has presented widely at key international, national and local conferences; and has served as editor of the NNEST Newsletter and is currently on the steering committee of the Second Language Writing IS.

After reading Sandra’s bio, I was reminded that many different TESOL Interest Sections have ESP practitioners and researchers. Sandra discusses her ESAP program development at UBC in her interview responses.

Sandra Zappa-Hollman
Director of the Academic English Program
Vantage College, University of British Columbia

1. Define leadership in your own words.

Leaders are individuals who are in a position to inspire and have influence over others. Yet, being in a leadership role doesn’t automatically turn someone into a good leader. Being effective at it is the result of a process of “becoming.” Among other things, this process requires engaging in sustained critical reflection, gaining self-awareness of one’s strongest and weakest areas, and seeking professional development opportunities in a wide range of aspects related to the responsibilities of the role.

Excelling at leading involves following a set of core values and principles, as well as possessing certain personal attributes that include

  • Having a vision for the program/project one is responsible for, being passionate about it, and being able to communicate this vision to others to provide initial direction and motivation
  • Having a curious, open mind, and recognizing that learning is a lifelong endeavour through observation, interactions, as well as training
  • Fostering respectful, trustworthy relationships with colleagues through promoting and modelling effective collaboration
  • Consulting widely with all stakeholders and taking into account multiple perspectives to make fair, informed decisions
  • Advocating for the rights and needs of others, which assumes deep familiarity with the situational contexts and the individuals one works with

Good leaders are enablers who strive to empower others by recognizing their potential and their contributions, and by pointing to helpful material and human resources. Effective leaders are encouraging and patient, displaying a high degree of adaptability and resourcefulness. Beyond the skills and technical knowledge required, approaching leadership humbly, ethically, with gratitude as well as with a sincere caring disposition for the wellbeing of others (and of oneself) may well be what most significantly contributes to transformative, rewarding leadership.

2. Tell me an ESP project success story. Focus on your communication as a leader in the project. How did you communicate with stakeholders to make that project successful?

The story I would like to share here is fairly recent; in fact, we could say it’s still in progress. The setting is the academic English program at Vantage College, a new academic unit that offers first-year programming for international students at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Our students are enrolled in either a bachelor’s degree in science, arts, management, or engineering. They complete their freshman year at Vantage, where they are provided with an enriched educational experience that includes embedded disciplinary language instruction across the program.

As newly hired director of the academic English programming at Vantage in 2014, my first task was to head the design of discipline-specific language-oriented curriculum and materials for each of the first-year bachelor’s degree program options. Working on a tight timeline and alongside a curriculum manager and another ESAP specialist (a consultant at the time) with expertise in systemic functional linguistics (the language orientation that underpins our curriculum), we interviewed our disciplinary colleagues, examined their instructional materials, and conducted a survey that allowed us to identify the academic and professional skills, genres, and registers in the respective disciplinary areas. This mapping exercise informed the design of the language-oriented curriculum. A materials designer was subsequently hired to create customized sets of lessons for the various adjunct courses paired up with the different disciplinary courses. Almost concurrently to all these developments in programming and materials, I launched the hiring process to build our instructional team, which was to include six full-time ESAP lecturers.

The challenges at the time, as you can imagine, were almost overwhelming: We were all charting new territory; none of us had previously collaborated in such an interdisciplinary environment, where epistemologies, pedagogical approaches, and discourses didn’t always align. Yet despite all this, we managed to establish a very productive relationship in great part due to our shared efforts at understanding each other’s needs and goals. By the time we launched our program – six months after my initial appointment – we had a full team of highly motivated, experienced, and relentless ESAP instructors ready to welcome our first cohort of 188 students from across the world. I would be providing you with a distorted account of “reality” if I said we were fully ready: there were many bumps to overcome and tweaks to make, yet overall our launching year was a great success, and a testament to that are our graduates, who are now about to begin their fourth (for many their graduating) year of undergraduate studies at UBC.

As we begin our fourth year, our program has matured and learned much from the ongoing program evaluation findings, from our regular planning meetings throughout the academic year, our yearly retreats, our in-house professional development sessions, and from the collaborations with our disciplinary colleagues. Our ESAP instructional team, which has since grown to include 14 full-time members, has now engaged in a variety of scholarship of teaching projects and knowledge mobilization activities to report on the innovative pedagogical approaches in our program. I feel extremely grateful and privileged for the opportunity to lead such a fine, dedicated group of colleagues.

Sandra’s interesting account illuminates the value of boundary-spanning leadership for ESP project leaders. How do you span boundaries in your ESP program creation and implementation?

Please feel free to contact Sandra with any questions or comments.

All the best,


About Kevin Knight

Kevin Knight
Kevin Knight (PhD in Linguistics, MBA, MPIA) is an associate professor in the Department of International Communication (International Business Career major) and has also been working in the Career Education Center of Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan. In the TESOL ESP Interest Section (ESPIS), he has served as chair and English in occupational settings (EOS) representative, and he is currently the ESPIS community manager. He was also a member of the Governance Review Task Force (GRTF) appointed by the board of directors. In addition, he has been a TESOL blogger in the area of English for Specific Purposes (ESP). He has more than 30 years of professional experience working for private, public, and academic sector institutions including Sony and the Japan Patent Office. His doctoral research on leadership communication (i.e., discourse) as a basis for leadership development was under the supervision of Emeritus Professor Christopher Candlin and Dr. Alan Jones.
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