Cultural Exchange Happens Online During Covid-19 for Conversation Partners

By Caitlin Burns | November 18, 2020

Each summer, students from China’s Jiangsu University attend Arcadia to complete the last two years of their mathematics and actuarial science degrees. This year, students from Jiangsu were unable to come to the United States due to Covid-19, but their American education isn’t being held off.

As part of the Jiangsu student education, each Jiangsu student is paired with a volunteer member of the Arcadia University community to help develop speaking skills through the Conversation Partners program. To continue to help students prepare for their move abroad, the program this year has moved online.

“What we see about each other on the news and social media isn’t always true,” said Tran Chau, director of the English Language Institute at Arcadia. “I’m hoping that by having students converse in this program, they’ll have a connection and can be free to ask questions and have a better understanding of each other’s countries. I want them to make those cultural connections.”

Arcadia University students are currently working with Jiangsu students in their first and second years who will be continuing their education at the Glenside campus in their third and fourth years. Each night, one to four Arcadia students work with Jiangsu students in courses taught by Arcadia instructors Jessica Hill and Geoffrey Rickert.

“We have certain topics we cover in each class,” said Computer Science major James Hinkle ’23, who signed up after receiving an email calling for volunteers. “We’ve discussed topics like hometown, parks, malls, movie theaters, as well as about their families and appearances.”

Hinkle said he usually logs into the class around 7:20 p.m. each Sunday night, which equates to about 8:30 a.m. in China, and chats with about seven to eight Jiangsu students in a breakout room on Zoom. They chat for about 30 minutes about a topic, with Hinkle addressing students directly. 

“The goal in my class is that partners, to some degree, simulate conversations that learners will experience with [English languages] test examiners,” said Rickert, referring to the English test non-native speakers need to take before they can be granted a study visa. “This gives learners the chance to practice their ability to understand and answer questions using spoken English, which is something they have little opportunity to do in their home.”

Conversation Partners was established at Arcadia in fall 2014 as a way for students to have a cultural exchange and practice language skills. Chau said prior to Covid-19, she had been thinking about ways to expand the program so students at Jiangsu could practice their conversational English prior to arriving in Glenside, and this offered an opportunity to test drive a new method. While she hopes that in-person Conversation Partners can resume once students return to campus, she plans to continue the online program.

“I’m learning about China from my Jiangsu students even as they’re learning about America from me,” said Chau, who is teaching an online class for the Jiangsu students in China who would have transferred to Arcadia’s campus this fall. “It enables students to make personal connections and build relationships before they even come to campus.”