Can We Talk?

Conversation program builds English skills and breaks down barriers

Sean Duggan

When Yuzhong Wang first began attending classes at Emory's School of Law last year, he found himself understanding about 70 percent of what was being said in the classroom.

“In many cases, I could guess what I was missing, but law is complicated, and during
the first months, it could be difficult to follow,” he recalls.

Although Wang had studied English since he began attending primary school in China and had worked with English-speaking clients at a Shanghai-based law firm, he realized his conversation skills had room for improvement.

So when an invitation to learn more about Emory’s Conversation Partner Program appeared in his email inbox last year, he decided to look into it.

Offered through Campus Life’s Office of International Student Life (OISL), the volunteer program pairs international students, staff, and faculty with undergraduate and graduate students, staff, and faculty from the US to help practice conversational English, says Allison Olmsted 15C, an OISL fellow who participated in the program as an Emory undergraduate and now helps coordinate it.

The program—which pairs people for one semester at a time—offers international participants a chance to practice language skills in a relaxed, friendly setting, and also breaks down social and cultural barriers, allowing both partners to learn about new cultures, share worldviews, and in many cases make a friend.

“I think it’s always beneficial to get to know someone who is different from you,” says Olmsted, who continues her participation in the program as an Emory staff member. “It encourages you to look at things in a different way, to learn about others, and also to learn more about yourself.”

During fall 2015, Emory’s Conversation Partner Program drew some 325 volunteer participants, and interest has been on the rise. The program was launched two years ago by OISL Director Natalie Cruz, who participated in a similar effort at Clemson University, and Jane O’Connor, director of the Emory College ESL Program.

Cruz first surveyed international students at Emory and created a student advisory board to discuss their experiences on campus. “What I kept hearing from international students—and it’s a nationwide trend—was that they wanted more relationships with domestic students,” Cruz says. “The idea was to help provide a platform for those relationships to flourish.”

Program participants are asked to complete a one-hour training session and commit to meeting with their partners a minimum of an hour a week. Questionnaires help pair partners by age, interests, and a variety of other factors.

Through the program, Wang was paired with Jay Page 12B, an Emory staff member who works on a strategic initiatives team at the School of Medicine. Neither knew what to expect, but the program helped break the ice with some casual social events. Together, they began meeting on campus once a week— often over lunch and conversation about their lives, backgrounds and cultures, sports, and food.

In time, Wang was inviting Page over for a home-cooked meal and to meet his wife and daughter, and Page was taking Wang to an Atlanta Hawks basketball game and a University of Georgia–Georgia Tech football game. The experience has created a connection both men anticipate maintaining, even after Wang returns to China.

“It’s not like one person teaching the other, it’s more like creating a friendship—a bond that will last beyond the program,” Page says. “For me, that personal aspect was important. I’ve loved learning more about him and his culture.”—Kimber Williams 

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