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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Finding connections through conversation

International students practice their English-speaking skills at the Graduate Student Center (photo by Percival Gueverra)

As Percival Guevarra stood up and raised his right hand, people grew quiet and, one after another, raised their hands as well.

“Change your partner,” Guevarra said loudly to get the attention of those still talking.

The gathering of international students and scholars took place at the Graduate Student Center, just as it does every Thursday and Friday afternoon. It was the brainchild of Guevarra, an English-as-a-second-language specialist in the Writing Center, who wanted to provide an opportunity for internationals to practice their facility with the English language.

The University provides some programs tailored to its more than 2,800 international students and scholars, but they are primarily based in each department or school, and Guevarra wanted to find a way to connect the various services. He initiated the speaking groups last spring.

Born in Germany to Filipino parents, Guevarro moved with his family to the United States in 1992. He speaks English, Spanish, Japanese and German.

Guevarra landed his job at Carolina after graduating from the University of California-San Francisco in 2010 with a master’s degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages.

“It’s more diverse in California,” Guevarra said, comparing the accessibility of English-language resources.

At Carolina, he found that international students and scholars were interested in additional language resources, which led to his effort to team up with the Preparing International Teaching Assistants Program (PITAP) to launch the speaking groups. PITAP helps international graduate students learn key teaching skills for the U.S. classroom.

Though he has no funding for the programs, Guevarra can use the space in the Graduate Student Center for free.

The current format for the speaking groups is Guevarra’s third try. The first two programs, featuring games and group conversations, did not pan out. But the new model pairs people who talk with each other about a suggested topic for 10 minutes before they switch to a different partner. They discuss how to order in restaurants and what to do in Chapel Hill, among other topics.

Guevarra understands how to help international students and scholars overcome their fears and gain the confidence to speak out. “I try to embarrass myself first,” he said. “I think I do a good job of that.”

Thirty people came to the each of the first two meetings this semester, and the feedback has been positive.

“It’s easy to make new friends here,” said Bena Lee, a Korean visiting scholar in the UNC Rehabilitation Center.

Although participation from native English speakers has been low, Guevarra believes that they, too, can benefit from the program. If they want to study or work abroad, they will likely meet someone helpful in the groups, he said.

Ananya Mallavarapu, a senior global studies and communication studies major from Charlotte, volunteers in the group to help internationals practice speaking English. “This is a brilliant idea,” said Mallavarapu, who was born in India and came to the United States 15 years ago. “You make friends and help yourself at the same time.”

One challenge is finding a balance among participants at different proficiency levels. Some international students and scholars simply need to brush up on basic English skills, while others are seeking an in-depth tutorial situation.

The speaking groups are a good starting point for helping internationals find additional resources, Guevarra said. “If Chinese students just want to speak Chinese and eat Chinese food, that’s fine,” he said. “But if they want to experience North Carolina, I want to make sure it’s available.”