New Workshops Ease the Transition to Campus Life

Celso Docabo of Brazil and Lingming Chen of China play cultural bingo at UMass Lowell Image by K. Webster
Celso Docabo of Brazil and Lingming Chen of China play cultural bingo in an English conversation workshop for international students.

By Katharine Webster

How do you pronounce “Worcester” and “Gloucester”?

A dozen new international students laughed as they watched a video that demonstrated that most Americans don’t know how to say the names of several Massachusetts cities.

“You’re not the only ones who don’t know how to say ‘Haverhill,’” Allyson Lynch, assistant director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA), assured them in a workshop on conversational English.

Soon, she had them pronouncing the names like natives: “Wooster,” “Glawster” and “Hay-vrl.”

Members of the Vietnamese Student Association is one of several international student clubs at UMass Lowell Image by Tory Wesnofske
The Vietnamese Student Association is one of several clubs for international students sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Affairs.

Earlier, she had handed out “cultural bingo” cards that required the students to walk around and ask each other questions like “Have you ever been to Canada?” and “Do you prefer tea to coffee?” so they could practice speaking American English and get to know each other. After the video, they paired up to fill in Mad Libs and read them aloud.

Starting at a new university in a new country is doubly challenging. Five of the six countries sending the most students to UMass Lowell are in Asia – India, China, South Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia – and the cultural differences can be both exciting and overwhelming, Lynch says.

So this fall, OMA has ramped up its support for the university’s growing population of international students by hosting weekly workshops in English conversation, career skills and cultural differences.

“We want these students to have a fun and happy experience,” Lynch says. “They’ve gone through a lot to come here, and their families have sacrificed so much. It’s a huge adjustment and a leap of faith.”

To help students adjust to life as River Hawks, OMA offered a two-day orientation for new international students before classes began and a one-day orientation after classes began for late-arriving students. More than 200 students attended the programs, which introduced them to campus resources to help them with everything from their studies to their health.

Allyson Lynch coordinates support programs for international students at UMass Lowell through the Office of Multicultural Affairs Image by K. Webster
Allyson Lynch, who coordinates support programs for international students, leads an English conversation workshop.

Before they had even arrived, 10 student ambassadors from OMA had corresponded with all of them to answer questions like “What kind of clothing will I need?” and point them toward people and resources within the International Students & Scholars Office (ISSO) to help with logistics.

Osamah Banabilah, a junior chemical engineering student from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, who attended the two-day orientation, said he was grateful for a session on how to open a bank account and get a debit card.

“And I got to know some people with similar hobbies like football – soccer,” he said, quickly switching to the American term for the world’s most popular sport.

This fall, OMA is continuing its support with the workshops and the Pair-up Program, which began as a student initiative in the DifferenceMaker program. The Pair-up Program, now celebrating its fifth anniversary, assigns American student buddies to new international students in their major or program.

In the brand-new English conversation group, the students are learning how to communicate with professors in person and by email, how to recognize sarcasm and other aspects of American humor, and how to join in cheering for the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins and Patriots. Lynch leads the group with help from two students: Mariella Mendez, an English major, and Shruti Talwar, a graduate student in public health.

Jeronimo Clusella Alvarez of Madrid chats with Mariella Mendez during an English conversation group for international students. Image by K. Webster
Jeronimo Clusella, a finance major from Madrid, talks to English major Mariella Mendez during an English conversation workshop.

Jeronimo Clusella Alvarez, a junior finance major from Madrid, said he hopes to lose his Spanish accent so that when he gives business presentations, everyone can understand what he’s saying. Akash Ghodekar, a master’s student in engineering management from Pune, India, agreed. He was educated in British English, but spoke the regional Marathi language outside of school, he said.

“In India, we’re not used to speaking English on a daily basis, and if you’re speaking (publicly) and you fumble, you lose confidence,” Ghodekar said. “It can be very difficult to find a job if you don’t have good communication skills.”

Lingming Chen, a master’s student in public health from Heilongjiang province in China, said she has trouble understanding some of the conversations in the classroom – and wants the confidence to speak up herself.

“In my country, we don’t talk in the classroom, but here we talk a lot,” she said. “And people speak so fast! I want to understand better.”

In addition to the English conversation group, Lynch is holding weekly “Culture Shock Talks” to deal with topics such as academic writing and government regulations about working on a student visa.

Akash Ghodekar of India and Jeronimo Clusella Alvarez fill out Mad Libs Image by K. Webster
Akash Ghodekar, an engineering management student from India, and Clusella both get bingo.

She and other OMA staff are also encouraging international students to attend a series of “Career Corner” workshops on Tuesday afternoons. Staff from Career & Co-op Services are taking them through the paces of writing a professional resume, putting up a LinkedIn profile and practicing for interviews.

In the past, the Culture Shock Talks were held monthly. This year, all three workshops are being held weekly in September and October. The intensive support is designed to give international students a solid base before their tests, projects and papers pile up – and so that when homesickness strikes, they won’t be struggling so much in other ways, Lynch says.

“It’s more beneficial to them to get this information early,” she says.

The support and friendship will continue after October, too, through monthly workshops, International Education Week, international student clubs and field trips. Apple picking at a local orchard, always a popular outing, is Saturday, Oct.5. American students are welcome to join in the events and activities, especially the English conversation group.

Visit the Multicultural Affairs website for more information on support for international students.