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Conversation Partners Program Helps Bridge Gaps

Hands-On Learning

This article originally appeared in the Bentley Magazine.

Conversation Partners Program Helps Bridge Gaps

Do you want fries with that? Some of the smallest things can pose the greatest challenge for international graduate students who are adjusting to life in the United States. So says Shanghai native Shaoqing (Alvin) Yao, a student in the Master of Science in Finance program.

“I had a lot of trouble ordering in restaurants . . . the many choices of sauces and what to add, like lettuce, tomatoes and pickles,” he says. The variety of offerings could make even a trip to the supermarket or pharmacy seen daunting.

Sociable and eager to learn about his new home, Yao rang up some impressive successes in his first month alone: finding an apartment, passing a driver’s license exam, buying a car. Mastering the flow of everyday dialogue proved more difficult.

“I studied English before coming here,” he says. “But finding the right words can sometimes be difficult.”

Bridging the Gap
Mary Wright, coordinator of graduate ESOL tutorials, is committed to bridging the cultural gap that Yao and other international students often experience. Last fall, she started the American Conversational Partners program to match graduate students from abroad with Bentley faculty and staff. 

“I was looking for a way to help the students not only assimilate into the academic environment at Bentley, but also understand what American culture and family life is really about,” explains Wright, an assistant professor of English who has consulted for the U.S. Agency for International Development and developed English as a Second Language curricula for area universities and businesses. 

The program has drawn terrific response, with 44 faculty and staff members and 57 students meeting regularly for informal conversation. Yao was matched with Diane Bemis, a designer in the college’s Marketing and Communication Department.

“I was interested to help someone understand American culture,” says Bemis. “In the past, I hosted a Japanese exchange student and it was a very enlightening experience.”

Bemis and Yao have discussed everything from holiday traditions to New England winters to karaoke -- all while navigating the notoriously rocky shoals of the English language. In addition to meeting one-on-one, they have attended group activities such as luncheons and social hours.

Finding a Fit
A strong supporter of the program is Heikki Topi, associate dean of business, graduate and executive programs. He came to the U.S. from Finland in 1991 as an MBA exchange student at Indiana University.

“My studies went well,” Topi explains. “The challenges were related to wanting to be socially accepted and fitting in. Having a program such as this would have been a great opportunity to ask questions that felt too simple to bring up with colleagues or professors, but still had an impact on everyday life.” 

Wright, who grew up in a military family and has lived in Japan, Turkey, Greece and Germany, says that she has often felt “a stranger in a strange land” and values the importance of feeling connected.

“A quality education at any level boils down to how daily life functions for these international students,” she says, noting plans to expand the program with cultural trips and skill-building workshops. “Some real friendships have developed that will go on long after these students leave Bentley.”


by Kristen Walsh October 19, 2018

Alison Davis-Blake, the former business school dean at the Universities of Michigan and Minnesota, was inaugurated as the eighth president of Bentley University in a ceremony attended by students, faculty, staff, alumni and other members of the extended Bentley community.

TOPICS: News, Leadership