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Cross Cultural Conversation Connection fosters understanding

Zou-Dreliszak

Conversation partners Mengrong Zou and Christopher Dreliszak

At first glance, Mengrong Zou and Christopher Dreliszak don't appear to have much in common. Zou is a graduate student in applied statistics from Hunan, China; Dreliszak a freshman from Pittsburgh majoring in film production. The two met through the University's "matchmaking" office, specializing in international relationships. It's not a romantic partnering service, though. Instead, its focus is language, culture and friendship.

Hosted since 1995 by the English as a Second Language Program, the Cross Cultural Conversation Connection (4C) pairs international students with American students to help improve language skills and promote knowledge of other cultures. Pairs can be of the same or opposite sexes, of different ages and from different majors, like Zou and Dreliszak.

The group hosts a party each semester where most participants are introduced to their conversation partners. Then it is up to the pairs to decide when and how often to meet. The goal is at least 10 times a semester.

"It's really fun to see everyone at the kickoff party because everyone is so excited about it," said graduate assistant Amanda Athon. "Often partners will join with other partner groups and all do things together. Last fall we had 175 participants, and about 100 this semester.

"I definitely recommend to international students to take part in this program. I've learned a lot from it.""People choose to participate for a variety of reasons," Athon said. "For some of the international students, it's part of a class and we always try to make sure they get a partner. For the American students, it can be a way to get to know people from other cultures and even from outside Ohio. It's always rewarding to see students getting outside their comfort zone."

Prospective participants fill out a questionnaire asking if they have language or other preferences. "We really try to honor any cultural considerations," Athon said.

Both Zou and Dreliszak signed up for 4C after hearing about it from their faculty members. Zou said she highly values the opportunity to meet not only American students but also those from other countries.

"We have students from Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Ghana - even from other U.S. states," she said. "Also, BGSU has a lot of majors; where I come from, I studied at a school where everyone was in science and technology. Here I have friends who study piano or violin. I definitely recommend to international students to take part in this program. I've learned a lot from it."

"Despite there being a four-year age difference, it was easy to transition from high school to college, being able to meet someone here to spend time with," said Dreliszak, who is minoring in Asian studies and studied Japanese with Akiko Jones last semester.

And, as sometimes happens with strangers one meets away from home, the two have found themselves able to discuss a variety of topics freely - even politics and religion, which are often uncomfortable even among one's own family, Dreliszak noted.

"I am an atheist, and many people here are very religious," Zou said. "But with him, I can talk about anything. He accepts me and my beliefs."

Both China and the U.S. were involved in national elections about the time the two students met, and each explained their respective country's political system to the other, which involved some study on each of their parts, they said.

"I have a new friend here and it has helped me a lot with my English," said Zou, who transferred to BGSU from a college in Chicago where there were so many Chinese students that she rarely had to speak English outside of class. "I had my textbooks but that is not the same as actually speaking," she said.

When English is not your native language, even ordering a sandwich can be challenging, according to Zou, whose nickname is Mango. "I don't know what everything is called so it's hard to say what I want. Chris helps me learn the names of things - but mostly, he helps me learn about American culture," she said."

"If you're planning to study abroad, it can help prepare you for the language and the cultural aspect, or if you just like another culture, it's a good way to learn more about it."Since meeting through 4C last September, Zou and Dreliszak go out to eat and to sporting events on campus such as hockey and football. "I've never seen those kinds of games before," Zou commented. Her language partner explains the sometimes-complicated rules to her.

"If we have free time or there are activities, we ask each other," Dreliszak said.

The language learning and cultural exchange can go in both directions. Jason Wencak, a second-year master's student in sociology from Cortlandt Manor, N.Y., wanted to revive his knowledge of Chinese gained during an undergraduate study abroad in Taiwan. After completing a 4C interest survey, he was paired with Fu-Hsin (Daisy) Yo, a second year graduate student in mental health counseling major from Taiwan.

Although their busy schedules have not allowed them much time together, "it's nice to reminisce about Taiwan, and it's refreshing to hang out with someone from outside my department," Wencak said.

Many of the American students who participate have a strong interest in other cultures. Wencak, whose specialty is demography, plans to eventually work with a nongovernmental organization development program in Sub-Saharan Africa.

"I definitely recommend the 4C program," he said. "If you're planning to study abroad, it can help prepare you for the language and the cultural aspect, or if you just like another culture, it's a good way to learn more about it."

"Being in the program has made me more culturally aware," Dreliszak said. "There were Chinese students in my high school, but I felt there was a barrier there and it was hard to get to know them. With Mango, I've been very interested to learn about things like how the Chinese celebrate holidays and how family-oriented they are, even with their one-child policy," he said.

The conversation connection has yielded some surprises for Zou. "What I knew about the United States' students before was only from movies and music videos. But knowing Chris I learn that they are not all the crazy undergraduates we see on those things."

Dreliszak said that, apart from the cultural awareness he has gained, "I have a really good friend who I hope to keep for a long time."