Speaking the same language

Amy Poppinga

Amy Poppinga

According to the International Student Affairs Office, 285 international students from more than 50 countries attend or perform research at SDSU.

SDSU offers many programs to assist these students with the transition to life and school in America. One of these groups is Conversation Partners.

According to the program’s coordinator, Marilyn Brown, Conversation Partners is a match between an international student and an American based on gender and interests. Brown likes to pair boys with boys and girls with girls. Usually the American is a student, but Brown has turned to community members and SDSU staff when not enough students sign up.

When the program began sometime in the ’80s, the purpose was to improve international students’ English. Although the program is still useful for this purpose, Brown said that international students and American students find out about each others’ cultures, and the international students can “learn the nuances of American life.”

The only requirements of the program are a fondness of talking, openness to new cultures and ideas and flexibility on meeting times. The partners are also encouraged to meet at least once a week, but after Brown makes the match, she does not oversee their activities.

Dr. Karen Cardenas, a retired Spanish professor from SDSU, has been involved with Conversation Partners for about a year. During this time, she has been partnered with Omid Vakili, an Iranian student who recently graduated with his master’s degree in mechanical engineering.

Typically, Cardenas and Vakili would meet for coffee a couple of times a week. They would talk about general subjects such as weekend activities and topics out of Vakili’s book for learning English.

More specifically, Cardenas also helped Vakili practice interview questions, and she reviewed and edited some of his articles that were published by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Other partners have participated in various activities as well. Brown said that partners go bowling and ice-fishing together, prepare ethnic dishes for one another and discuss cultural questions such as arranged marriages. Brown’s daughter and her partner even watched videos of friends’ weddings to compare and contrast their countries’ traditions.

Cultural awareness is a common benefit to both partners. “We are all citizens of the world whether we know it or not,” Brown said. She feels that it is important for everyone to know about other cultures.

Brown also said, “You get stereotypes, but once you get to know people from other cultures, you realize that (a lot of) those stereotypes aren’t true.”

Cardenas agrees. With an Iranian student as her partner, she found it eye-opening that what the media says or how they portray the Iranian people is not always accurate.

In Cardenas’s opinion, the Conversation Partners program is important to be involved in because “bonds that are formed with people in the community really do count when (the international students) go back to their countries and take positions of power.”

She said they will look more highly on the United States due to their experiences here.

Vakili thinks other students should get involved in this program to “meet new people, be familiar with other cultures and learn the English language.”

Interested students may contact Marilyn Brown at [email protected] or at 688-4308.

#1.883212:2465209067.jpg:conversationpartners.mg.jpg:Retired Spanish professor Karen Cardenas and Iranian former student Omid Vakili converse at Bagel Works.:Mike Goetz