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Campus Life

Conversation and Coffee, International Style

NC State’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute pairs international students with conversation partners to help them improve their English.

four people standing together in a group photo
Osher Lifelong Learning Institute volunteers Sheila (second from left) and Robert (far right) host Korean students for dinner at their home.

Written by Joan Hardman-Cobb, assistant director of NC State’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute

NC State has a large population of students whose first language is not English. Many of them attend classes at the university to improve their English, but what they really want — and need — is to chat with an American to work on their conversational skills. But it can be difficult to find someone who is willing to have a meaningful conversation.

Enter Robin Kube, senior lecturer of foreign languages and literature at NC State. She coordinates the TESOL Certificate Program to prepare people to teach English as a second language. She was inspired to reach out to NC State’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) after watching a movie, “Finding You.” It is about an American student in Ireland who was in a program where all international students were matched with a retired community member for the semester.

In fall 2021, Kube reached out to staff of OLLI’s lifelong learning program (aimed at adults over the age of 50) and asked if they would like to commit to meeting one-on-one with an international student one hour a month for a semester to help them improve their conversational skills.

The result was amazing. Within a week, more than 20 students had been matched up with an OLLI conversation partner.

OLLI members have a wealth of experience to draw on from their working lives and community engagement. Many have traveled extensively and have lived and worked abroad, so they have the perfect combination of life experience and empathy to be a helpful resource for the international students.

Kube told OLLI staff she was “so grateful that you were able to get me volunteers so quickly. My students are so excited to meet with them. I know that for my student from Czechia that her meetings with Marlene in the fall were one of the highlights of her semester in Raleigh.”

Here’s what OLLI members have said about their experiences:

  • Lea has been meeting with a Vietnamese student and says they spend a great deal of time laughing. The student’s English is “quite good, but we often do not understand each other, and we laugh as we attempt to interpret what the other is saying. Since my Vietnamese skills are non-existent, it often takes us a while to decide what we’re talking about!”
  • Denise observed that her Chinese student partner is “a good conversationalist and so happy to talk about anything. I do sometimes help her with vocabulary or pronunciation, and it’s totally OK. She’s also asked some questions about our culture that have been interesting, since expectations can be different in the U.S. than in China. I am a safe person to ask those questions.”
  • Sheila and her husband, Robert, have each been helping two Korean students with conversation skills and recently invited both to their home to enjoy a home-cooked Italian dinner. “We had a nice time. Just two Americans hosting two Koreans.”
  • Herb invited four international students to join his family for a Thanksgiving meal. One of the students commented, “We had a great time there, it was perfect. They were really nice.”

This has been a successful collaboration and one that we hope it will continue for many years at NC State.

Interested in joining the Conversation and Coffee program? Contact Robin Kube. Find out more about OLLI here.