I have been teaching in an EAP program for the last six years. The goal of our program is to prepare international students for the experience of studying in a post-secondary program alongside their domestic peers. Understandably, competence in their use of English is paramount. However, I am constantly struck by the fact that domestic students and international students, regardless of their ability to speak English well, remain largely separate on campus, both in and out of classes.
My students often comment that they don’t know how to make friends with Canadian students, and they are worried about the quality of their English and how they will be received. In an effort to bridge this ‘great divide’, I recently had the opportunity for my students to participate in a communicative activity that, for a change, did not involve their own classmates. Working alongside a wonderful colleague and professor in another discipline*, I was able to offer my class of twenty students a chance to meet and converse with the very Canadians they had been worried about meeting (and intimidated by) for a long time.
First fear, then anticipation
When I first introduced the idea to my class, reactions ranged from fear to excitement. I assured them that the Canadian students were not only interested in meeting with them, but that they too had fears and concerns about how to communicate, and what kind of topics would be appropriate. Both my colleague and I prepared our respective groups by providing some background information about the students they would be talking with. We attempted to create a supportive and low pressure informal conversational setting. My class brainstormed a list of questions they could ask their Canadian peers, in case they felt lost or anxious.
The moment of truth
Finally, the big day arrived. The EAP students and Social Work students were split into small groups and given a ninety minute period to develop a conversation. I must admit I was worried, and at first hovered close to the shy ones like a mother hen. After a short settling in period, I noticed that my students loosened up – most of them abandoning their question sheets and launching into genuine communication, compete with hesitations, gaffs and misunderstandings. It was a raging success!
We all have some things in common
Feedback after the conversation class was universally positive. Many students commented that making this brief connection with the domestic students alleviated their anxiety about going into a post secondary program alongside them. They were surprised to learn that the Canadian students were just as nervous about meeting them as they were, and that many were worried about asking insensitive questions or saying the wrong thing. For their part, the domestic students were kind and welcoming, and showed a genuine interest in learning about the experiences of their international peers in our college. It was a real eye opener for all concerned.
Building communication bridges
Helping international students make in-roads toward forming friendships with domestic students is an initiative that can reap great rewards for all those involved. Too often we tolerate a separation of cultures with a kind of benign indifference, which leads to a continuation of the status quo. I believe it is important to remember that everyone needs help breaking the ice sometimes. We all have our insecurities. Enabling international students to form friendships or even acquaintances with domestic students enriches language learning for international students and cultural learning for everyone.
How do you encourage or enable your students to make connections beyond the classroom? Please share your ideas!
*Many thanks to Professor Theresa Anzovino of Niagara College for enabling my EAP students to participate in this memorable activity.