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Being an immigrant in a new world can be a daunting and lonely experience compounded even more when language is a barrier. Add social distancing to the mix and getting much-needed socialization and support becomes more difficult. That’s why Montgomery College students, many of who already went through this experience themselves, albeit not during a pandemic, jumped at the chance to be virtual conversation partners to English as a Second Language (ESL) students.

MC student Paola Culling volunteered because English is her second language as well and she wanted to assist others.

The idea started last spring when all nonessential services closed their doors due to COVID-19. An ESL instructor at Montgomery College worried about her students’ conversation practices. Many community-based resources at libraries, coffee shops, religious gathering places, and others were no longer available.

At the same time, Hannah Stocks, service-learning coordinator and part-time faculty, was looking for virtual service opportunities for MC students. The solution was to launch the pilot ESL Conversation Partner Program. The program serves English language learners who have limited opportunity for conversation, and for-credit students who needed a remote alternative to meet their service-learning goals.

Through the new program, student volunteers met with MC ESL students virtually, via zoom or Skype, once a week for eight weeks. Additionally, volunteers met as a small group—generally five or six students—every other week for training and to share successes, challenges, discussions, and activities that worked, and to reflect on the experience overall. During the fall 2020 semester, 18 partnerships supported 36 MC students, about double the number than in the spring.

“Once the program got going, it became clear that many students enjoyed the social connection, cultural exchanges, and even new friendships,” Stocks said. “I am particularly inspired by the thought student volunteers put into planning and supporting the ESL students.”

About half the volunteers were former ESL students. Several shared their own experiences learning English, or observing a parent learn, as their motivations to volunteer for the program. Some were ESL students as far back as early elementary school, others much more recently.

Once the program got going, it became clear that many students enjoyed the social connection, cultural exchanges, and even new friendships. I am particularly inspired by the thought student volunteers put into planning and supporting the ESL students.

Volunteer Paola Culling, a business major, is planning to graduate in spring 2021. “Like my conversation partner, Adriana, English is my second language, and it is not easy to learn,” she said. “So, I would share my knowledge in English and help her in any way that I can, so she can learn, be comfortable, and improve her speaking.”

Adriana Gonzalez is an ESL student and Paola’s conversation partner

Culling found the experience rewarding. “It feels good knowing that what I am doing is actually working. My conversation partner told me that she moved into an advanced class, and she thanked me because our conversation really helped her. I felt really happy and speechless at the same time,” Culling said.

During the small meeting groups, volunteers told Stocks some of their methods: while one played a game to improve their partner’s vocabulary, another gave their partner a presentation about themselves and about his professional area of expertise. Some have become friends during a time marked by social isolation for many.

In a survey meant to gauge how effective the program is and whether it should continue, the majority ESL learners marked the program as highly or very valuable to them. In conversations and through the survey, they cited improved English speaking, listening skills, and reading skills; a better cultural understanding of the United States and of the local community; social connection; and learning about opportunities within MC. Student volunteers often share that they gained patience and communication skills plus appreciation for social and cultural exchanges.

If the program is back next semester, Culling would like to participate once again: “I would like to help more and meet new people. I would also like to have more experience and learn new things.”

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