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A University program helps graduate students from abroad cultivate the art of casual conversation in English
The students who gather for lunch in the Heights Room on Monday, April 29, hail from China, South Korea, Chile, and Germany, but their conversation is limited to English—by decree. The meal marks the annual conclusion of the Conversation Partners Program (CPP), a three-and-a-half-year-old initiative that pairs international graduate students with members of the Boston College community for English conversation and cultural exchange. Since the beginning of October, a hundred twosomes have been meeting weekly, on and off campus, to discuss subjects of their choosing, from politics to pop culture.
At one of six round tables, over chicken with caprese salad, talk turns to the way English speakers struggle with Chinese names. Corey Potter, a student in the master’s program for mental health counseling at the Lynch School of Education (LSOE), scribbles on a cocktail napkin to show how she remembers the first name of her conversation partner and fellow LSOE student, Wenxiao Sun. “When-see-yow,” she writes. Sun laughs. Through CPP, Sun and Potter have bonded over shopping, sushi, dim sum, pizza, and movies, including most recently, Lincoln and Oz the Great and Powerful. “What does this mean?” Potter quizzes Sun, raising crossed fingers. “Good luck, wish me luck,” says Sun, “and if you do it behind your back, you lie!”
The subject of food sparks lively discussion. Xiaohang Wei, also known as Penny, who is about to graduate from the one-year master’s in accounting program at the Carroll School of Management (CSOM), recounts how she invited Tessa Peoples ’16 to Boston’s Chinatown for dim sum. Peoples, an English major from Pennsylvania, enjoyed the watermelon juice, but admits she didn’t care much for the chicken feet. “It’s a good chance to observe different table manners,” says Wei, noting that “Tessa likes to cut things into pieces and eat one by one,” whereas the Chinese way is to pick up the whole piece of food with chopsticks and take bites. Wei was also thrilled to receive a “thank-you” note from Peoples afterward, something she’d only read about.
Of the 100 international students enrolled in CPP for the 2012–13 academic year, 72 were from China, 22 from other parts of Asia, and the remainder from South America, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. The number of Chinese students entering Boston College graduate programs in the last decade has tripled (73 in 2002–03, compared with 228 in 2012–13). This increase accords with a national trend: The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that during the last six years the number of Chinese attending all American colleges almost doubled, to 200,000.
Assistant Dean Adrienne Nussbaum, who directs the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS), launched CPP in January 2010 after conducting a survey of the support systems for international graduate students at 13 schools, including Tufts, Harvard, and Brown universities, and the University of Notre Dame. “The conversation partners idea came up at numerous schools,” says Nussbaum, as a way of improving student confidence and performance in situations ranging from class projects to job interviews.
The University’s graduate schools “strongly supported” the creation of CPP, Nussbaum adds. CSOM, for example, had 167 international graduate students enrolled in four programs in 2012–13, and some of them, notably those in the one-year master’s in accounting program, begin having job interviews early in their studies.
According to Nussbaum, international graduate students often have difficulty meeting Americans, or even other members of the Boston College community, so CPP invites volunteer participation not only from English-speaking students—undergraduate and graduate—but also from faculty and staff. Twenty-one of the 100 English-speakers participating in 2012–13 were either University staff members or faculty. Ellen Zamecnik-Bowley, an administrator in Student Services, signed up for CPP when it started. Her first conversation partner was a law student from South Korea. In weekly meetings over nearly two and a half years, they talked about travel, education, and food; analyzed the differences between baseball in South Korea and America; and even took their families to Fenway Park for a Red Sox game. The student went on to the accounting firm Ernst & Young and is now enrolled in the tax LLM program at Georgetown Law School, but the two remain in touch. Zamecnik-Bowley says of her current partner, Chen-Yu Pan, a Ph.D. candidate in economics from Taiwan, the weekly hour “goes by too fast.”
CPP kicks off each year with a late September orientation session at which Nussbaum and members of the OISS staff set out the program’s expectations. They offer guidance on establishing ground rules (who pays for coffee or meals if the partners go out, for instance) and on handling cultural differences (the definition of punctuality is often an issue). “We talk about boundaries quite a bit,” says Nussbaum. For example, it’s important to be clear that conversation partners are not tutors and are not expected to correct papers or homework. The commitment is for a minimum of one hour’s conversation every week throughout the academic year. Both partners fill out an informal survey at the program’s start (to identify their goals for the coming year of conversation) and at the finish (to assess progress).
Martin Bernales, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy, moved to the Boston area from Chile with his wife and five young children in July 2012, and he’s been meeting weekly with George King ’70, an administrator in the Boston College libraries since 1994. According to King, their conversations have ranged over New England’s weather, “jobs we’ve done, family histories, American culture, and Thoreau.”
“I’m curious about everything,” says Bernales. “When the weather is good, we take a walk, like Plato and Aristotle.”
Jane Whitehead is a Boston-based writer.
This article has been revised by the deletion of a name at the request of a subject.
Read more by Jane Whitehead