July 11, 2013
June 25, 2012
After speaking with a number of other international students at the School of Education, she realized that many of them struggled with the same three challenges: limited spoken English proficiency, intercultural misunderstandings and social isolation.
A review of existing research confirmed that these are common obstacles for international students studying in the United States.
“Though there was sufficient research on what kinds of struggles international students have, there was limited empirical research on actual solutions or programs aimed at supporting international students,” recounted Zhang.
Zhang reached out to Cortney Cain, coordinator of the Conversation Partner Program, through the Graduate Center, Arts & Sciences. Together they surveyed all international members of the program and the resulting data led to the pilot Virtual Conversation Partners Program (VCPP).
“The VCPP is a peer program that promotes intercultural communicative competence through virtual conversations on Skype,” explained Zhang. “It pairs domestic students from William & Mary with incoming international students. Each pair schedules conversations for one hour per week for three months in the summer, or at least 10 hours of conversation by the end of the summer.”
While developing the VCPP, Zhang applied for, and received, an Innovative Diversity Efforts Award (IDEA) grant from the Office of Diversity and Community Initiatives. In the grant proposal, she designated the maximum number of participants as 25 domestic and 25 international students, hoping to get near that many. Just one day after announcing the program on campus she received 33 domestic applications. With the help of the Reves Center for International Studies, Zhang contacted incoming international students and by summer 2012 had 63 domestic students and 64 international students involved.
For a variety of William & Mary students, previous experiences living and working abroadled to a desire to participate in the VCPP.
Isra Nikoolkan ’14, a linguistics major at the College, jumped at the chance to participate after a semester studying abroad at Yonsei University, South Korea.
“I had a language exchange partner with whom I had conversations in English while being tutored in Korean,” explained Nikoolkan. “We became great friends over time, learning about each other’s cultures while improving our language abilities. I learned a lot about how to function in South Korea, and she learned much of the life I led in America.”
Similarly, Scott Laws ’13, an international relations major, spent spring 2011 in China and remembered his feelings of disorientation on arrival.
“Luckily while abroad I had some very helpful conversation partners that became some of my best friends,” remarked Laws. “I would like the opportunity to give back.”
Currently, the VCPP involves incoming international students from China, Taiwan, India, South Korea, Thailand, Pakistan, Nigeria, Australia and Austria. Through their weekly chats these students practice English pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar, as well as build confidence in speaking with native speakers and American classmates. Due to the ability to see their partners via Skype, students also practice reading English native speakers’ nonverbal cues, such as body language.
Nikoolkan and his partner use their chat sessions to talk about their days, what life is like where each lives and the kinds of things his partner might expect when he arrives in Williamsburg.
“Despite our age differences — I’m an undergraduate student and he is an incoming graduate student with a wife and child — we are comfortable talking about many different topics in regards to cultural differences and the observations we may have about each other’s culture,” noted Nikoolkan.
For many of the international students, learning about American culture is just as important as having the opportunity to practice their English language skills.
Amornsri Charuvajana, an incoming Mason School of Business student from Thailand, had already attended an exchange program in America prior to deciding to come to William & Mary. “I have some American and international friends, however I still want to meet new people, get to know them, exchange culture with them and finally become good friends.”
Lori Caruso, an incoming exchange student from Australia, echoed these sentiments. “I hope to gain a bit more insight into American life and culture – especially life as a student at William & Mary.”
With the help of the program’s IDEA grant, all Virtual Conversation Partners will come together in the fall for a celebration dinner. At the end of June, Jingzhu Zhang will present Developing Intercultural Communicative Competence: Virtual Conversation Partners Program at the Colonial Academic Alliance 2012 Global Education Conference at Towson University.
May 10, 2012
by Erin Zagursky | May 10, 2012
The new Virtual Conversation Partner Program pairs American students with incoming international students. The pairs of students will converse over Skype during the summer so that the international students can not only practice their English language skills but also get an introduction to William & Mary from students already on campus.
Zhang said that she first considered using blogs for the program.
“But later on, I realized that there is a big disadvantage of using blogs,” she said. “Even though you can practice reading and writing, it doesn’t really facilitate listening comprehension and spoken English. The spoken English part if a major obstacle for international students.”
Though Zhang originally estimated that about 20 American students and 20 international students would participate in the program, she has received an overwhelming amount of interest and now expects a total of about 200 participants, she said.
Zhang held an orientation for the American participants on April 3. The event included sessions on strategies for being a language partner, potential issues and a question-and-answer session with former conversation partners.
“(American students) know exactly why they want to participate,” Zhang said. “They want to help international students adjust to the new life, but also they realize they can benefit, as well. Being able to talk to someone who is from another country about cultural differences is simply wonderful.”
For Zhang, whose research focuses on barriers to international students in the United States and intercultural communication, the program is a dream fulfilled.
“I always wanted to do something with international students because I was one of them when I first came here a long time ago,” she said.
Read the full story on all three projects funded by the IDEA grants:
April 6, 2012
The VCPP Orientation 2012 was held on April 3, 2012 in the Reves Room. About 40 students attended the orientation. The project leader, Jingzhu Zhang, gave a brief introduction to how this idea came alive with the support from the various departments at W&M. She gave special thanks to Dr. Judi Harris, her advisor from the School of Education, for her continuous support in forming the program. Dr. Kulick from the Modern Language Department of Arts and Sciences also helped tremendously during the planning and implementation process. Both Graduate Center for Arts and Sciences and the Reves Center have provided unlimited support.
After the program introduction, Cortney Cain from the Graduate Center for Arts and Sciences talked about how to be a good conversation partner based on her experiences working with face-to-face conversation partners.
Eva Wong, the international student and scholar advisor from the Reves Center, offered some very practical suggestions on do’s and don’ts when interacting with international students. She also provided handouts with resources and contact information related to some common questions from international students.
Two American students from the face-to-face conversation partner program, Aaron Levin and Kevin Mahoney, talked about their individual experiences being conversation partners. Their candid descriptions offered the new virtual conversation partners some ideas of what to expect and how to handle the unexpected.
At the end of the orientation, the director of ISSP, Steve Sechrist, from the Reves Center, gave a wonderful closing remark, thanking all the participants for their enthusiasm and wishing everyone a rewarding intercultural experience.
March 23, 2012
One week after the official launch of the VCPP, we received over fifty applications. The enthusiasm from our students is contagious!
Here are some quotations from their applications:
“I would love the chance to meet more international students. Additionally, I studied abroad in China during Spring 2011, so I understand how disorienting the transition can be initially. Luckily, while abroad I had some very helpful conversation partners who became some of my best friends. I would like the opportunity to give back”.
“As the child of immigrant parents, I have always been immersed in my heritage. However, I am also interested in the international community and want to interact with members of it as much as possible. I think it’s important to learn the perspectives of thse from other countries and it is a crucial part of being a global citizen. I want to become a virtual conversation partner because it would give me a chance to learn about other people and other cultures on a personal basis, rather than a purely academic theoretical one. Through this program, I hope to broaden my horizons and help international students transition into a life at William and Mary”.
“Undoubtedly, the Virtual Conversation Partner Program could also enefit me by providing me with such an invaluable experience of communicating with students of diversified backgrounds. As I am moving out of college and entering the real world, understanding people with diversified backgrounds is a must to survive in th real world. I truly believe this opportunity could equip me with better communication skills, as well as understandings of different people and culture”.
March 14, 2012
Welcome to Virtual Conversation Partner Program website!
Virtual Conversation Partner Program at W&M is officially launched on March 15, 2012.
This project is the collaboration between the School of Education, The Wendy & Emery Reves Center for International Studies, and the Graduate Center for Arts & Science. This project is made possible by the IDEA (Innovative Diversity Efforts Award) grant from the Office of Diversity and Community Initiatives at W&M.
Virtual Conversation Partner Program promotes intercultural communication. It will pair an incoming international student with an American student at W&M. The conversation partners will communicate online through Skype.
You are invited to participate in this program. It is FREE!