Conversations across cultures: Tutoring program sparks friendships between domestic and international students at UO

Aziz Binhazzaa was anxious about his recent arrival to the United States; his only exposure to the English language was through movies and pop culture. So when he came to study abroad in Eugene, he looked for help. Aziz signed up for the American English Institute’s Tutoring and Conversation Partner Program: a one-on-one session held twice a week for international students to practice their oral English skills with domestic students at the University of Oregon.

During his first week on campus, Aziz, an international student from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, walked around UO’s EMU looking for Elizabeth Welte, a sophomore from Las Vegas, Nevada. When he found his conversation partner seated at a table, he sat across from Welte, in a hurry to introduce himself. Feeling nervous, but excited about his stay in the United States, Aziz jumped straight into the conversation. “Um, what is the Bill of Rights?”

Full of unanswered questions, international students like Aziz can feel overwhelmed when they arrive at UO. From adapting to the environment to navigating everyday life, international students need help adjusting.

AEI conversation partners are there to make the transition easier.

Although conversation partners are technically paid tutors, the exchange between participants often leads to a greater cross-cultural understanding — for the student and the tutor. But more than that, conversation partners are the first casual American social experience for international students and even sometimes their first real American friend.

Aziz & Lizzie

Aziz Binhazzaa speaks with his conversation partner Elizabeth Welte. (Natalie Waitt-Gibson)

In the conversation partner selection process, international students provide information about their major and interests so domestic students can choose a partner who is a good match. Since Aziz was interested in business, Welte, a business major, selected Aziz based on his similar interests. But that doesn’t mean their conversations are just about business.

“The first thing he wanted to do was learn about the Constitution. And I thought, ‘Oh boy, here we go,’” said Welte, who chuckled alongside Aziz as they reminisced about their first session as conversation partners.

“I’m not even interested in history,” Aziz said. “I thought, ‘if I’m going to live in the United States for some time, a part of me needs to learn U.S. history, so I can understand the country a bit more.’”

Aziz and Welte have met twice a week every week for the past two terms, finally moving on from U.S. history to casual conversations — ones that you might have with your best friends. When Welte was considering leaving UO to return to her home and attend the University of Nevada, Las Vegas next year, Aziz was there to help.

“It felt like I was taking a step back, but we talked about it and it’s not a step back,” Welte said. “He is my best friend and was part of my decision to go home. I came to him; as someone who tried something new, and being a business person, I just asked, ‘what is your advice?’”

Since 1980, the AEI tutoring program has helped international students improve their English. Of the 3,200 international students at UO, AEI is a program for those who aren’t proficient in English. Tutors aid teachers in classrooms and provide peer-to-peer support in the conversation partner program. Their goal is to enhance international students’ experience in the U.S. education system, provide knowledge of university resources and help students adjust to the Pacific Northwest culture.

“I didn’t know what to do. Is it difficult to get around? Is it easy? I wasn’t sure, but Lizzie helped me a lot to settle in,” Aziz said.

“One of the first things he asked me was ‘where can I get a haircut?’ Yes you could’ve just looked it up, but I knew where a good one was and I knew if he went to a salon instead of a barbershop, he wouldn’t have had his beard trimmed,” she said; Aziz laughed and stroked his beard.

“It’s the little things about living here that international students can mix up, but I’m here as a resource for him,” said Welte. “That’s what conversation partners do.”

Tomoka & Ellie

Originally from Chiba, Japan, Tomoka Uechi was eager to study abroad in Oregon. Her conversation partner, Ellie Yeo, was just as excited to begin her language teaching career. Yeo didn’t know quite yet, but she’d signed up to do a lot more that just teach.

During Uechi’s first term at UO, she felt as though her living situation was not ideal. It was set up for her by AEI and she was living too far from campus, which meant being far from her friends, classes and conversation partner. Uechi wanted a change, but wasn’t sure where to begin.

“Tomoka wanted to get an apartment last fall, so instead of sitting down and tutoring, we went apartment hunting together,” Yeo said.

“Oh yeah, Ellie helped me a lot!” Uechi replied.

“We did the application process together, and now she lives closer to campus and closer to her friends,” Yeo said.

Sometimes, international students are more concerned about their lifestyle while studying abroad than their school work. Both are important, and that’s why Uechi believes that simple conversations are just as valuable as a classroom lesson.

“For learning English, there are huge gaps between what I learn in class and what I learn with a conversation partner. In a class, the teacher teaches me grammar all term, but I rarely practice it. With a conversation partner, it’s just easy conversation. I don’t need to worry about grammar, but I can practice it,” Uechi said. “Ellie knows my background, and I trust her. I also like to ask her about slang; something they don’t teach us in class but is part of the English language.”

Zhikai & Natasha

Conversation partners Natasha Willow and Zhikai Wu. (Adam Eberhart/Daily Emerald)

International students often experience culture shock upon arriving in the U.S., even about little things like using Facebook as a form of socializing or something as traditional as following a religion. For Zhikai Wu, Christmas was the most shocking cultural event that occurred during his time as an AEI student.

“On Christmas, apparently everyone needs to give each other presents? That’s a new festival for me. I’ve never celebrated Christmas. In China we just celebrate New Year,” Wu said.

“Oh! I remember you told me something about Chinese New Year that shocked me too,” said Natasha Willow, Wu’s conversation partner and native Oregonian.

Willow, a Chinese major studying to be a language teacher, claims to learn just as much as she teaches. “In Chinese New Year, people give out dumplings for people to eat, but some of them have coins, and if you eat one with a coin in it, it’s good luck! I have always known about Chinese New Year, but never about that.”

“I like sharing our different cultures. And Natasha is a good partner for that,” Wu said. Wu is planning to graduate from the AEI to attend UO’s Lundquist School of Business. To do that, he must first pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

For international students to move on from practicing grammar, reading and writing, they must test their English proficiency and comprehension skills, including conversational English. Wu feels that his conversation partner experience will give him an advantage come test time.

The AEI program

Behind the front desk at Agate Hall. (Adam Eberhardt/Daily Emerald)

Although the conversation partner program is an important aspect of AEI, international students are not forced to take on the one-on-one sessions. They can instead participate in the myriad of other activities provided by AEI, such as the homework help desk, course electives based on American culture and the weekly coffee hour, an event where anyone can mingle and have a cup of coffee.

But not surprisingly, international students value the importance of practicing one-on-one English with native speakers. Of the 160 international students enrolled in AEI this term, approximately 70 to 75 percent have requested a conversation partner. In past terms, AEI had about 50 percent of its students request a partner. This increase could be attributed to AEI tutor coordinator Karen Ulloa, who made the process of requesting a partner more accessible.

“The conversation partner program is incredibly useful to both parties,” Ulloa said.  “For the international students, it’s peer to peer. In classrooms they have teachers who vary in ages, and their living situations –– most of the time –– are with people who speak their own language. So this gives them the opportunity to speak to someone who is around the same age, has the same interests that is also a college student.”

Ulloa believes that the conversation partner program is not a one-way tutoring session for international students, but a chance for domestic students to learn about the world and make cross-cultural connections. “It’s opening hearts and opening minds,” Ulloa said.

Bridging the cultural gap

Last September, when Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on women drivers, Aziz and Welte dug into a cross-cultural conversation about it. “We also spent a lot of time [talking] about women being able to drive. I had a lot of old-fashioned ideas about Saudi Arabia,” Welte said. “He came to me so happy when he found out, and now his sister wants to get a bunch of cars.”

Aziz believes that cultural understanding is one of the advantages of speaking to people from a different country or culture.

“When you read about Saudi Arabia, it’s not as easy as it is to talk to somebody from Saudi Arabia,” Aziz said. “It’s not like women were imprisoned before it was legal for them to drive. We had drivers, chauffeurs, transportation, and that isn’t included in a news article most of the time.”

He feels that cross-cultural conversations clear up misconceptions about a culture, like his talk with Welte.

“We also had so many discussions on freedom of speech whenever there were protests on campus, like the Genocide Awareness Project one,” Welte added. “We spent a lot of time talking about why they can do this and why it’s legal for them to do this.”   

“To me, in my culture, if something appears wrong, you cannot talk about it. However” — Aziz briefly paused to side-eye at Welte, who had taught him how to use the word “however”— “Here in America it is completely different. Here in America you have free speech and can talk about whatever you want as long as you’re not violent. To me this is very interesting. It’s not like this in Saudi Arabia.”

The conversation partner program is laying a foundation for cross-cultural understanding. For Aziz, this exchange doesn’t come from reading books, but rather by speaking to people of another culture, immersing oneself in that environment and having constant curiosity for a whole new world.

“I guess it’s a good thing I asked about the Bill of Rights the first day!”

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