Around the World in an Hour

On February 9, 2012

  • Jihong Yoon is an international student who used the ELI chat room program to explore new cultures and improve his fluency in English. Yeo Jung Lee /// The Spectrum


"I remember Ksneiia saying that when she was growing up in Ukraine, she'd sometimes go run in the fields naked," said Alison Cheu, a sophomore Asian studies major. "Coming from [New York] City, I was flabbergasted to hear those words come out of her mouth."

Cheu was talking about the conversations she had with many international students as part of the English Language Institute's (ELI) chat room program, which she participated in last spring. In the past eight years, the program has paired up undergraduate students at UB with international students who are trying to improve their fluency in English. The groups of three – one native speaker and two learners – are organized to have hour-long conversations, and the students often gain an awareness of each other's lives and cultures in the process.

"On average, we have approximately 17 chat room partners enrolled each semester," said Kathy Curtis, associate director of ELI. "Chat room partners are the native speakers of English who are UB undergraduates and receive two credits for their involvement.Last semester, we could accommodate approximately 100 chats on a weekly basis."

The chat room for this semester began on Monday.

The chats are mandatory for the students taking English as a Second Language (ESL) courses. Students must participate in a minimum of two chats.

"It is embarrassing to talk to my Chinese friends in English," said Kai Liu, an engineering graduate student who participated in the program through his ESL classes. "Only when speaking to Americans do I speak in English."

The chat room provides international students an opportunity to adapt to situations both inside and outside of school.

"I have been speaking Chinese for 22 years," said Feifei Bao, an accounting major. "I was therefore dumbstruck in front of a cashier at Target. Thanks to the chat room, I obtained opportunities to practice English and gain confidence."

Other students frequent the chat room despite not being required to for any class. Jihong Yoon, a senior business major, has been going to the chat room frequently for the last three semesters. He enjoys the opportunity to talk about various topics and improve his English. He is also enthusiastic about learning about American culture.

"Once, I had a cheerleader as a conversation partner," Yoon said excitedly.

Students find the program attractive due to the opportunity for cultural exchange it offers. Curtis said the program improves students' awareness of different cultures and gives them a global view of differences in people's lives.

"The main reason that I joined the chat room was because I felt the international community wasn't approachable," Cheu said. "Other reasons I had were to get the international students' perspective about their UB experience and cultural differences."

Hill Haas, who is 82 years old and audits classes at UB each semester, has participated in the program for the past three years. He has had conversations with students from Saudi Arabia, China, Turkey, and Japan, among others. Haas talked about a student from the Ivory Coast who he became particularly close to after their meetings in 2010. Many others also said they continued to keep in touch with some of the people they had talked to through the chat room. Many of the students involved remember sharing different cultural experiences as a highlight of the program. Volunteers recalled conversations about different education systems in countries like China, American slang words, and polygamy.

The hour-long chats seem to kindle many students' curiosity about the world. Past participants of the program have ended up traveling to different countries to teach English, according to Curtis.

"Sometimes, I feel that the program is more for the local students who are curious about international students than the other way around," Curtis said.

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