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Closing the Distance

Conversation Partners pairs international students with local residents
Story Series
Bridgewater Magazine

Huifang Zhao had a busy semester. On top of being a visiting international scholar at BSU, she taught a course on modern Chinese literature. Meanwhile, her husband and child were temporarily stranded stateside due to fears of COVID-19 in the family’s native China.

Throughout it all, the 49-year-old from Huaibei was glad to have someone to talk to. Thanks to Conversation Partners, a three-year-old initiative of the Dr. Edward W. Minnock Institute for Global Engagement, Ms. Zhao had friends to lean on. “Through the program I met very kind people, and they help and support us in our studies,” she said.

Conversation Partners pairs visiting international students and scholars with members of the area community. Local BSU students can also serve as partners. While pairs dominate the program, some trios have formed, as well.

Meeting on campus regularly throughout the school year, the participants share stories, ideas, practical information and, ultimately, friendship. The visitors also get to practice their English skills, while the locals discover much about their partner’s homeland.

“I just wanted to give back and learn from others,” said Jeanne Kling, ’79, from Halifax, whose third Conversation Partner was Ms. Zhao. “I enjoy supporting people who are visiting our country and embracing them to make sure they have a good experience.”

The early spring 2020 semester saw about 20 pairs taking part in the program, said Jennifer Currie, G’17, associate director of International Student and Scholar Services. These students and scholars generally attend BSU for either one or two semesters. Conversation Partners has provided a beneficial experience for all involved, Ms. Currie added. “It’s been great so far,” she said. “The students are really happy, and the partners enjoy it. Everyone gets a lot out of it.”

This proved to be the case during a February get-together in the living room of the Minnock Institute. During a break in the agenda, the partners on hand immediately broke out into animated conversation. Laughter and geniality marked much of the talk.

“I love the interaction with the students and the opportunity to learn about a different culture,” said Shirley Krasinski of Bridgewater, a former faculty member in the Department of Movement Arts, Health Promotion and Leisure Studies who retired in the late 1990s.

She helps her student partner, Cassie Chen of Dongguan, China, an English major, learn about American politics, which is the focus of one of her BSU courses. But there were other benefits, too, Cassie said. “It really helps me with my English, and I have a chance to talk to a native speaker and learn about American culture.”

Any visitor to the February gathering who saw the Conversation Partners in action would agree that the vibe was inclusive and friendly.

Or, as Ms. Zhao aptly put it, “I feel like I’m part of a big family.”