-Alex Dougherty, contributing writer
If you’ve been here long enough, you’ve probably realized that we have a pretty large international student population. For my first three years at MC, I wasn’t friends with hardly any of these students. I thought we wouldn’t have anything in common, I wouldn’t have anything to talk to them about, or they wouldn’t understand English. Everything changed for me last summer when I helped with an English sports camp in the Czech Republic. It was there that I learned that we aren’t that different from one another. My heart was opened to the rest of the world, and my perspective was greatly influenced. I came home from that trip with such a longing to go back, but in the meantime, I was in Mississippi.
I wanted an outlet where I could serve international students while I waited to return to the Czech Republic. So I joined the conversation partner program. Basically all you do is meet with an international student once a week to talk for an hour about anything. The only restriction is that everything has to be in English, which wasn’t too hard for me. If you haven’t been a conversation partner yet, I highly recommend you try it for three reasons.
First, if you are like me and enjoy surprises, then you will love the first day of the program. All of the students are given slips of paper with their conversation partner’s name and major on it, and they have to try to pick you out from the crowd. You don’t know the name or nationality of the student you will be working with, but that is what makes it fun. When I met my assigned student from China for the first time, the friendship was formed instantly. It doesn’t take long to form a friendship with your conversation partner because both of you are eager to know one another. That seldom happens in most situations.
Second, you will laugh a lot when you approach the language barrier. My partner’s English was pretty good, but we still had a few miscommunications. For instance, I was asking him about public transportation in China (comparing that with my experience in Prague. I talk a lot about Prague). I said, “What kind of public transportation do you have in China?” He didn’t know what I meant. I said, “Like, do you have a subway?” He said, “Oh, yes! And we also have a KFC!” It was awesome.
Third, you will learn just as much from your student as they will learn from you. The whole point of the program is to help international students practice their English, but the Americans who help them profit as well because their worldview expands. I was able to learn many fascinating things about China that I would have never known if I didn’t ask someone. I was able to see the country the way that its citizens see it and was able to understand Chinese history in a way that wasn’t explained to me in my American textbooks. I learned that the life of an international student is not easy. They are in a different country with different customs and are having to speak a language that is foreign. They have to find transportation (for a while, my friend had to walk all the way to his house near Chick-fil-A after class. That’s a long way). They have to find a house and possibly a job. And believe it or not, there is a little bit of discrimination.
Of course, my partner did learn a few things from me. Whether those are good things or bad things is too soon to tell. For example, in addition to just talking, I taught my friend slang. The first time I taught him a slang word, I immediately checked with Mrs. Vandersteen, who was in charge of the program at the time, to make sure that it was ok. I once talked to him about some of the things that we can say in English that aren’t bad words, but can serve the same purpose, like crap or shoot. At the end of every meeting, he had to write about what we talked about. So he said, “Today, we talked about bad words.” I said, “Nononononono!”
Anyway, if you love internationals, you like surprises, enjoy a good laugh, wish to broaden your perspective, or just want to make a new friend, I highly recommend you look into the conversation partner program. You can contact Christina Bach at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.