Program bridges cultural divide | The Triangle

Program bridges cultural divide

Drexel’s Intercultural Community Bridge Program, which was designed to help forge a bond between foreign and domestic students, was launched in October.

The pilot program, which provides cross-cultural interaction among members of the Drexel community, was designed by the English Language Center and the Intercultural Forum and will run until April 2013.

Each learning community consists of three international Gateway students at the ELC, two fully matriculated Drexel students, Drexel faculty or staff members, and a West Philadelphia community member. They meet once per month to go out to a local restaurant, explore the city or form a study group. They plan to go to Christmas Village for their next meeting in December.

Zekun Zheng, a Gateway student in one of these communities, has already reaped the benefits of the program.

“I think playing and having fun is the best part about interacting with people in our country. But in the United States, talking about the difference of cultures with the students from different countries is the best,” Zheng wrote in an email.

He continued, “I think we should learn how [daily life] can help me understand American culture, like what festivals they have, what food they eat, what they would do after work, and so on.”

The Gateway program works to ease international students into the Drexel community. Currently, 74 out of the 75 students in the program are from mainland China. The students go through intensive English-learning courses and then progress into Drexel’s standard four- or five-year track. With this Bridge program, international students are exposed to “little communities” beyond their peers and others involved in Gateway.

Bethany Shaw, an English as a second language instructor and one of the program coordinators, helped to develop the program and bring it to life.

“The idea of creating ‘little communities’ for the Gateway students originally came from Barbara Hoekje, director of the ELC. ….[She] said that she was thinking that perhaps we could create a community for them — one where they would still be with each other, but they would be with other people as well, perhaps domestic students or people that have been here for a while,” Shaw said.

She continued, “I thought that we should make families for them because I thought they needed a little nurturing and guidance, and [Hoekje] agreed.”

Since then, the Bridge community has expanded to include more than 150 participants. Talar Kaloustian, an ESL instructor and researcher, explained that the greatest benefit of the program is that these international students feel more comfortable about speaking English and approaching other students.

“Within the group, it is common to view students reaching out to American students as showing off; a program like this can really dispel that notion. It’s a support system that international students really need,” she said.

Kaloustian takes part in a seven-member community as well. Each student responds in a unique way, but after their first meeting in the ELC, they became very vocal and inquisitive with family members. Students record these interactions in a journal that they use to keep track of progress and improvements in overall English abilities.

Shaw has high hopes for the future of the program and is still willing to accept applications for the community.

“When I received this picture after their first family meeting, I thought this is exactly why I wanted to make this program happen. They looked so happy after only an hour. Also, I spoke with a faculty member after her first meeting. She said that she doesn’t know what kind of magic we weaved when we put her community family together, but they are a perfect match,” Shaw said.

The program also offers other events and opportunities for international students. International Scholars and Students Services and International House will host an annual International Festival Nov. 30 at 3701 Chestnut St. Projected to have over 200 people in attendance, the festival will be another opportunity for international students to interact and engage in a diverse environment.