Volunteers, foreign partners form bonds through language program

URBANA — Maureen Daly and Hessa Al-Khattabi stroll from the University of Illinois Quadrangle to the north end of the Illini Union, one of them or the other greeting friend after friend, many wearing the traditional Muslim women's garb.

Some of these friendships were forged in ConvoPartners, a program at the UI's Intensive English Institute that matches students in English as a second language with native English speakers, who help teach them about the language as well as the customs of the United States.

When they get to the Espresso Royale in the Union's Courtyard Cafe, Daly and Al-Khattabi greet another friend: Colin Zimmerman, who's behind the counter.

He's a former ConvoPartner who made friends from Kazakhstan and Taiwan.

The two women order green tea. Then they sit down at a table a few feet from other current or former ConvoPartners their age — or friends of ConvoPartners.

All of which makes it sound like most of the Urbana campus' 40,000-plus students are involved in the program.

But there are only 154 active volunteers (and not all are students) and 250 people in the Intensive English Institute, a 20-hours-a-week academic program for students who want to develop skills they will need in undergraduate and graduate programs in U.S. universities. Of the 250, 174 participate in the program.

Clearly, there's some networking going on, with friends of friends spreading the word inside and outside the university community.

Champaign-Urbana residents are welcome to volunteer, says ConvoPartners coordinator Rachel Newell, but the service is only for students enrolled at the Intensive English Institute, not students enrolled in UI undergraduate or graduate programs or community non-native speakers.

The reward for the institute members is obvious. The reward for the volunteers seems to be friendship with highly motivated people who want to be in the U.S. to gain knowledge.

Daly, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt on the last hot day of 2013, has become close friends with Al-Khattabi, who wears the head covering and draped clothing common for women from Saudi Arabia.

They sometimes spend much more than the required one hour a week, taking trips to cultural sites and festivals.

Daly is a senior in communication from Peoria.

She's outgoing, highly verbal and expects to work in sales after she graduates in December.

Her friend is studying at the institute, preparing to work on a master's degree in chemistry. She received her undergraduate degree at King Khalid University in the Saudi city of Abha.

Al-Khattabi has her English down pretty well by now.

The friends chat about American bridesmaids' outfits, about dormitories versus apartments, engagement parties in Saudi Arabia (men and women celebrate separately), deep-dish pizza, coffee brewed from green beans, the movie "42," dates for dessert, a trip to a strawberry festival ... .

They have also eaten a lot of corn "because this is Illinois," Al-Khattabi says. "Now I love corn."

In a brief chat with the front counter guy as he takes their order, Zimmerman reminisces about how much he enjoyed going with his Taiwanese friend to the Golden Harbor restaurant — and meeting all at once a dozen of his friend's friends.

"They were great," Zimmerman says.

Newell says the conversations serve more than one purpose.

"The main purpose (for ConvoPartners) is for our students to practice English, but they also get to know a real American and see what daily life is like here," she says.

Many of the institute's students are from Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Korea, Newell says, along with Angola, Taiwan, China, Japan, Kuwait and Egypt, among others.

One of the younger students is Maria Emilia Jaramillo, 18, of Ecuador. She works with Alison Dey, a Champaign native who is minoring in Spanish at the UI.

Their meetings usually are around breakfast time, before Jaramillo starts her long session of intensive English.

"We have been hanging out on the mornings at Starbucks to get a cup of coffee and chat about how our classes are going, about our weekend," she says.

In that way, the program coordinator says, "Volunteers serve as cultural informants."

Dey gets a lot of questions about the nitty-gritty of living in a college town.

"I ask her questions if I have any concerns or problems," Jaramillo says, for instance, about checking the MTD bus schedule.

"I always have a good time talking to her; she is always willing to help me in everything, and I think that makes ConvoPartners more fun. When you get alone with your partner, and feel free to talk of whatever you want, it's more comfortable," she says.

Yu-Cheng Fan, who goes by "Chad," is from Taiwan. After his undergraduate work back home, he's partnered with David Beery, a second-year master's student in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese.

Beery also speaks a small amount of Chinese, as well as some Arabic and Uzbek.

Beery has taught him "a lot of idioms and gestures" necessary for communication, Chad says, but also something about social life here.

The Taiwanese student hungers for more student life.

"I really like my home stay, they are very kind people, but the house (where) I live, it's very far to campus. I will move to campus (in) November," he says.

He admits he had a goofy idea or two that Beery and others have disabused him of.

When Chad first came here, "I thought here (was) a lot of champagne," he says.

Beery says he has been pleasantly surprised by how well Chad speaks English after arriving in the States only this summer.

A local farmer's market has given them a lot to talk about.

"It's nice to be able to help somebody in the process. I've been through beginning language so many times," Beery says. "It helps him, and I get to imprint my own linguistic anomalies into him."

For her part, Daly says she hasn't learned a lot of Arabic from her Saudi friend.

"The only Arabic I have picked up is hello," she says. "I'm not very good at pronouncing the other words I have tried to learn."

Particulars on ConvoPartners

If you are interested in volunteering for ConvoPartners, http://www.iei.illinois.edu/involvement/ has an online application form.

Partners are usually assigned at the beginning of each semester.

Volunteers are expected to meet with their ConvoPartners (one or two University of Illinois Intensive English Institute students) for at least one hour a week. The partners can pick a time and place that is convenient for both.

The institute encourages partners to also attend some of the all-institute social activities, among them a Chicago trip, sports events — including soccer — group volunteering with such organizations as Habitat For Humanity and weekly fun, educational events.

Calendar information for ConvoPartners is at https://www.facebook.com/iei.illinois.

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