English Conversation Partner Program Goes Remote, Expands Opportunities

Due to the pandemic, the English as a Second Language (ESL) Center at Kent State University recently moved its English Conversation Partner program online. Once an in-person activity only, the program’s transitioning to a remote environment has actually opened up new opportunities, such as involvement from alumni and additional unique groups and students being able to connect with their language partners regardless of their physical location. 

Participants in the program are typically students in the ESL center and domestic or international students enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate program at Kent State.

“My goal is to match ESL Center students, students who are at Kent State to learn English, with domestic students or sometimes international students who have a high level of English, for casual, informal and friendly conversation,” said Elizabeth Howard, professor in the English department at Kent State, who serves as the main point of communication for domestic students in the program.

The program is designed to give ESL students the opportunity to improve their English skills outside of the classroom through informal conversations while possibly beginning a new friendship.

“Unfortunately, when the ESL students leave the classroom, they break up into language groups and a lot of them don’t seek out ways to practice their English,” said Barry Simpson, professor in the English department at Kent State, who serves as the main point of communication for ESL students.  “The program is a way for ESL students to gain exposure and avenues into English-speaking communication.”

As for domestic students, Howard expressed that the program can broaden their horizons. 

“For many of our domestic students, their conversation partner might be the first person from any given country they have ever met,” Howard said. “It's a way for them to expand their horizons and open their eyes to different ways of the world or different experiences of the world.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, ESL students and their partners would meet in-person once a week, but now, partners meet virtually once a week. Meeting virtually takes away the in-person connection; however, partners are finding clever ways to overcome these challenges and build a strong relationship with each other.

“Prior to moving online, we required students to take selfies together and write a log with the name of their partner, where they met, what they talked about and more,” Howard said. “It turned out that a number of the partners got creative with the selfies, and it became a fun activity for them to do together. Even though the program is now virtual, there are still a lot of students trying to incorporate this activity and have fun with it as well.”

Despite the program being virtual, the ESL Center is trying to keep it fun and exciting for students, said Simpson, and that the virtual platform no longer limits students who want to participate, but aren’t on or near campus.

“One of our ESL students is participating in this program from China, which in the past wouldn't have been able to work because we always had them meeting face-to-face,” Simpson said. “Now that students are meeting virtually, they can meet from anywhere in the world, which makes it convenient for all participating students.”

Through the years, many participants in the program have developed long-lasting friendships with one another.

“Some partners have traveled to each other and stayed in each other's homes or hometown to experience what life is like through their conversation partner’s eyes,” Howard said. “Sometimes the friendships are short-lived or they stay friends for a while, it just depends.”

There are two ways domestic students can participate in the program. Interested students can enroll in a one-credit-hour course, College Teaching Assistant, ENG 41094, which fulfills their experiential learning requirement. Students can also volunteer for the program outside of class, and Howard says that while students can only receive credit three times for the course, there is no limit to how many times they can volunteer.  

“We have had domestic students from all different majors because they are interested in meeting people from different cultures and people who speak different languages,” Howard said. “Or they themselves are studying a particular language and they would like to meet people from that country.”

Up until this semester, the ESL Center required that domestic student partners be current, registered students, but now the program is open to Kent State alumni who would like to volunteer to become a conversation partner.

“This semester it turns out that a lot of my volunteers are alumni,” Howard said. “This year, we had twice as many people who wanted to participate than last year, and I think it's because people are desperate for connections due to quarantine and being stuck inside.”

Due to the high volume of interest from domestic students and alums who wanted to participate in the conversation partner program this semester, Howard and Simpson needed to look outside of the program for additional international volunteers.

Because Simpson was recently teaching English in Banja Luka, the second-largest city in Bosnia, Howard let him know they needed more volunteers for the program.

“When Elizabeth said she needed more people, I thought the people in Bosnia would love this,” Simpson said. “I used the American Corner Facebook page to advertise the conversation partner program, and the volunteers flooded in.”

Through Simpson's connections in Bosnia and Herzegovina, he was able to get about a dozen volunteers from an English conversation group in Banja Luka to make up the shortfall of non-native speakers, which is also a first for this semester, said Simpson.

Howard expressed that they expect the program to remain online until summer 2021, but it has not been yet determined when it will resume in person. Until then, students will continue to develop better communication skills, while making valuable connections all over the world.

For more information about the program, email Elizabeth Howard at ehoward@kent.edu.

POSTED: Wednesday, October 21, 2020 - 5:12pm
UPDATED: Friday, October 23, 2020 - 9:00am
WRITTEN BY:
Andriana Ruscitto