By John Zhu
The summer of COVID-19 found many people stuck at home, missing their friends. Some international members of the Duke community, though, were missing something else, too—opportunities to speak in English regularly and hone their language skills.
Fortunately, some were able to fill that gap through a new offering from The Graduate School’s English for International Students (EIS) program and the International House. Once a week for seven weeks in May and June, EIS and I-House staff led an informal online language class, providing opportunities for the participants to talk, be heard, and build connections.
“In the face of COVID-19, I’m usually staying at home and rarely having chances to meet friends,” said EJ Kim, a visiting scholar in the Department of Political Science who took part in the classes. “Thanks to this program, I could meet many international friends and native speakers online and practice my English regularly.
“It was one of my big pleasures during COVID-19.”
A pandemic response wasn’t what Assistant Dean Brad Teague, director of the EIS program, had in mind when he approached the I-House to propose the summer partnership. He was thinking of a more persistent issue: The Graduate School’s international students have access to extensive English language support through the EIS program, but other international members of the Duke community—postdocs, visiting scholars, and their spouses or partners—don’t have as many resources.
Teague wanted to help address that need during the summer before he and his staff turned their focus to planning for the next academic year, and the I-House was happy to partner.
“Many students and their families arrive to Durham, to Duke, and then find that they are not communicating as much in the English language as they had imagined prior to arrival,” said Lisa Giragosian, director of the I-House. “Certainly the most consistent way to improve in anything in life is to practice, practice, practice. The English language class fulfills a need to practice communication in a relaxed and informal setting. This is one opportunity that is run by a university department that is easily accessible.”
Teague and EIS program coordinator Christian Gomez led the weekly sessions, along with an I-House staff member (Giragosian, I-House assistant director Paige Vinson, or student development coordinator Ling Jin). EIS instructor Elizabeth Long also helped with some of the sessions.
The classes typically had 15 participants. Each session lasted an hour and was focused on a topic suggested by the participants themselves, such as American culture, idioms, or presentation tips. The bulk of class time—about 30 to 45 minutes—was spent in small-group discussions about that topic.
Manman Deng, a visiting scholar in the Department of Pathology, said the discussions helped her learn more about American culture and sightseeing spots around North Carolina.
“Importantly, I practiced my oral English,” she added. “This class increased my confidence when speaking English.”
While Teague, Gomez, and the I-House staff led the classes, they were not the ones doing the most talking, and that was the point.
“The main thing that the classes offered participants was opportunities to speak, practice their English, and get feedback,” Teague said. “We purposely try to not say too much. It’s not a lecture; it’s the participants talking.”
Giragosian said that in addition to speaking, the class was also about holding space to listen to each other.
“We respect the speaker’s experiences and realities,” she said. “I am not just there to ‘adjust’ grammar or phrasing. It is also my job to listen thoughtfully and reflectively. In the process of listening, I learned so much. In the process, everyone’s confidence grows.”
“It was like a weekly journey to me,” Kim said. “Encountering other cultures, including American culture and idioms, makes me broaden my perspectives.”
The classes were supposed to be in-person, but shifted to online due to COVID-19. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, they also offered a sense of community, Giragosian said.
“Some of the participants may be living with family members or housemates, but they are not physically coming to Duke University, not reading in the Perkins Library, not attending class or experimenting in the lab,” she said. “So most feel incredibly isolated at this time. The fact that we can all meet once a week virtually, see each other’s faces, and share together is so important. I noticed there were a number of regular attendees in the program.”
After the successful trial run, Teague hopes to continue the classes in future summers.
“It has been clear to me for some time that international postdocs, visiting scholars, and spouses or partners at Duke have a strong desire for English-language support,” he said. “I am very glad that EIS was able to help meet this need through the informal class this summer. We had active participation in the program and received positive feedback, so I am hopeful that we will be able to offer similar opportunities again.”