Sitting in the UC Rotunda at CMU, it is not uncommon to hear four or more languages as students from a plethora of origins hammer away at their keyboards. It does not matter from what town or nation one hails, homework does not discriminate.

“It’s really interesting to be able to walk through the UC or even Grawn Hall and hear all the different languages people are speaking,” accounting major Christian Conley said. “I’ve heard Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese, Indian, Urdu, we’re kind of seated in the middle of nowhere in Michigan, and to be able to see so many different languages and cultures, it’s just amazing.”

Conley, a Troy senior days away from graduation, is unique in that he is one of relatively few American students currently enrolled in the English Language Institute’s conversation partners program.

Signing with the program at the beginning of the fall semester, Conley was assigned Loudi, China native and doctorate student, Chenwu Yang, within a week.  Now about four months later, he could not be happier with his decision to register at a time when the on-campus international student population has reached an all-time high and internationals are in demand of English speaker more than ever. Yang could not be more appreciative either.

2009 Intenational Student Body Composition

The number of international students has increased dramatically in recent years. Indian graduate students and Saudi Arabians have been the two largest contributors to this change.

2011 Intenational Student Body Composition

Within half a decade, the number of Saudi Arabian students attending CMU increased 710 percent. This same period saw the founding of the International Student Organization (the largest multinational culture RSO) and the Saudi Student Club (the largest single culture RSO) on campus.

For the pair, their bond will extend beyond university and the program, with Conley saying the two will stay in touch and already have a planned trip to a Red Wings game over break and a Tigers game in spring, among other activities, as friends.

“I’m actually learning a language myself and it’s kind of common knowledge that the best way to learn a language is just have conversations with people,” Conley, who is learning Spanish in his spare time, said. “I originally just thought it would be interesting to be the person on the other side of the conversation.”

The conversation partners program itself combines one American student with an international student of the same sex for the duration of at least one semester. They are encouraged to not just talk, but also engage in activities with one another and slowly learn each other’s culture.

Associate director of the ELI, Caitlin Hamstra, said the ELI’s international enrollees doubled solely within the past year and American conversation partners like Conley are in increasing demand.

Hamstra, who was on leave for the semester, is normally the head of the conversation partners program. She said typically international students must face waiting times between one and three weeks before being assigned an American volunteer, and it is not unusual to be paired in a group including at least one other international student.

“Usually, there are way more international students than American volunteers, so that’s always been a little bit of a struggle for me, getting enough volunteers to meet with our international students,” Hamstra said. “International students really want to meet somebody and get the practice; there is a big incentive for them because they gain a lot.”

Yet despite this fact, in the past semester, multiple American students were forced to wait times far beyond a week while Maria McNeel was the temporary head of the program.

Lansing senior Jennifer Vandenhaute said she waited at least eight weeks between registering for the program at the beginning of the semester and being paired her partner, Yukun Wang.

Vandenhaute said after she registered, there was additionally no contact from the ELI to let her know she was a part of the program when she applied in September.

“I heard nothing, then was assigned with Yukun in November,” Vandenhaute said. “I was excited, but really surprised.”

While Wang was able to receive Vandenhaute as a conversation partner within a week, many international students were forced to wait far longer.

Mohammed Almushajrah is a 24-year-old Saudi Arabian student attempting to learn the English language while his wife pursues graduate studies at CMU. He said he waited a month before being at last paired with a partner shortly before Thanksgiving break.

“I love American films, most of the English I know comes from (movies) that I have watched,” Almushajrah said. “I have been waiting for a (conversation partner) so I can improve my English, it has been (hard) finding an American friend who I can talk with and help my English.”

While Hamstra was on leave, Maria McNeel served as head of the Conversation Partners program. She did not comment on the story.

Conley said he greatly enjoyed his experience.

“I would do it again and I would actually encourage anyone to go out and do the program,” Conley said. “It’s learning another culture, while teaching someone else your own. Experiencing something from the almost opposite from the other side of our continuum, it’s just a different lifestyle in China than America, and it’s cool to see a little snapshot of that.”

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