New Year’s resolutions, such as promising yourself to eat healthier and go to the gym more, are often and easily broken. College is a time to try new things and get out of your comfort zone. Perhaps learning about another culture is up your alley.
If that’s the case, the Intensive English Institute’s Conversation Partner Program is an opportunity not to be missed.
The program, which has been active at the University of Maine since the 1980s, helps foreign students strengthen their English skills by pairing them with an English-speaking student or other member of the community.
“When [international students] come here, they get a paper that asks them if they would like a conversation partner and, if so, which day works for them and which time works for them,” said Megan Webster, an English as a Second Language teacher at the IEI.
“What happens is initially, they’ll pick a time and day to meet up, and after their first meeting, often it turns into much more than just an hour a day,” Webster said.
Webster started at the IEI as a conversation partner and she assures the program is culturally enriching and eye-opening.
“It’s an amazing experience,” she said. “You’re constantly learning about their culture and it opens your world up and sort of adds that stimulation into your everyday life. Often, there become connections where it’s not just structured and regimented. It becomes [a friendship]. You have Saudi dinners, you go have coffee together.”
The program is an opportunity for foreign students to spend time with people from a country other than their own, which is often difficult for those coming to the United States for the first time.
“We have a big group of people from Saudi Arabia, and they come with their cousins and their brothers and their best friends,” Webster said. “Often, they don’t break out of their community of Saudis, so this gives them an opportunity to have that connection that is outside of going home and just speaking Arabic all the time and not learning too much about Maine culture and American culture.”
Ali Alsultan, a native of Saudi Arabia and a participant in the program, said he has greatly benefited from interaction with English speakers.
“The conversation partner helps us to speak and they correct something when I talk, like grammar or something,” Alsultan said.
Like many foreign students before him, Alsultan has formed new friendships thanks to the program.
“Last summer, my conversation partner liked [to] swim and play soccer,” he said. “Anytime, any day, he’ll text me or I’ll text him, ask him if he has free time, and we go out together.”
Lingxuan Do, a Chinese student, has also enjoyed learning about the English language and American culture through her conversation partner.
“I think this is a wonderful program because I already have a wonderful conversation partner,” Do said. “She is [an] old woman, but she is so interesting because she can tell me the correct pronunciation of the word and she can teach me many [things] dealing with my life because she’s older than me and she has more experience than me.”
Do prefers learning English this way to sitting in a classroom and taking notes because of the more personal connection created in a casual conversation.
“I think it’s more helpful than learning English with a tutor,” Do said. “This program gives me a chance to talk with the different people, someone who is not from my country. We talk about the cultures, and I learn some American culture from her, so it’s great.”
Echoing the sentiments of the foreign students, Stacia Kingsbury, a conversation partner volunteer, sees the benefits of the program beyond helping somebody learn to speak English.
“Your first meeting, you’re just getting the basic [questions], like ‘Where are you from?’, ‘What’s your name?’, ‘What do you like?’, you know,” Kingsbury said. “As you progress, it’s like you’re building a friendship, really, and you’re getting to know about their culture and you’re sharing your culture with them.”
“It’s like you’re not only helping them with English. You’re helping them acclimate to this culture and you’re a friendly face that if they see on campus, they can feel safe and be like, ‘Hey, how do I do this, how do I get this done?’” Kingsbury said.
Webster attributes much of the program’s success to its informal nature, saying, “[The foreign students] can sit and talk in a casual way and work on fluency in communication without that intimidation of [real world situations]. It gives them that comfortable setting where they can ask, ‘Did I just say that right?’”
The program also does well because it is as enriching an experience for the volunteers as it is for the foreign students. The students learn a lot about American culture, but through the whole process, the volunteers also learn about the students’ culture.
“Being in Maine, it’s kind of like a mono-culture, but being around people of other cultures is really rewarding,” Kingsbury said.
It’s not often Americans have to explain their own set of regional customs, and Kingsbury says trying to share your culture with somebody else “makes you realize your own values,” as well as those of people from other countries.
“I think the Conversation Partner Program is not only just for speaking English, we also can be friends with each other,” Do said. “We all come from different countries, so we can exchange the cultural things.”
Those looking to volunteer as conversation partners can stop by 208A Hannibal Hamlin Hall Monday through Thursday from 2 to 3 p.m. or contact Megan Webster at email@example.com for more information.