Student group makes learning second language, culture easier

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Penn State sophomore Yanying Chen traveled to the United States to pursue an undergraduate degree in actuarial science, the experience wasn’t her first time moving to a new country, so she was prepared for the changes ahead.

But that wasn’t always the case.

Originally from China, Chen moved with her family in 2005 to Botswana, where she spent much of her junior and high school years.

“I had a tough time learning English, and I also had to learn French at the time,” she said.

Now, she is helping to ease the language and cultural transition to the U.S. for other students through the Office of Global Programs’ Transition Partners program.

“I saw students from El Salvador linking and communicating with students from Saudi Arabia in a way I hadn’t before. I think that really highlights the program.”

— Mehari Ghebremicael, a transition partner with the Office of Global Programs

“English isn’t my first language and I had trouble with speaking it at the beginning, so I thought I could use my experience to talk to them,” she said of the students she mentors.

Transition partners, as the Penn State students are called, work to welcome international students who come to the University through the Intensive English Communication Program (IECP), an intensive English language program for international students who would like to attend a higher education institution in the United States. 

Chen and six other transition partners were each paired with a group of six to 10 IECP students for the fall semester. Beginning at New Student Orientation, partners act as a welcoming committee to the University and the community. Throughout the semester, they help with logistical issues, such as where on campus to get help connecting to Wi-Fi; answer cultural questions; and plan small social events to help international students feel connected.

“I feel like this is just something I’m supposed to be doing. I see myself in them.”

— Yanying Chen, a transition partner with the Office of Global Programs

“From my experience, when a person is new to an environment, this person really needs help from the people around them, so I felt that as a transition partner, I should commit to time with them, and then spend more time with them if they need help,” said Chen, who joined the program this fall. “I feel like this is just something I’m supposed to be doing. I see myself in them.”

December is Learn a Foreign Language Month. Learn about the many opportunities Penn State offers for students — native English speakers and international students alike — to learn a foreign language.

For other students, the opportunity to experience other cultures and help others assimilate to the community was a draw.

“I really fell in love with the program in the spring when I met students from a really diverse group,” said Mehari Ghebremicael, a Penn State senior majoring in marketing who has been working as a transition partner since last fall. “I saw students from El Salvador linking and communicating with students from Saudi Arabia in a way I hadn’t before. I think that really highlights the program.”

Ghebremicael said that being a transition partner has opened his eyes to parts of the world and other cultures he’s never experienced before. Being a part of this program is a great opportunity, he added, especially for students who may not be able to travel internationally through a study abroad program.

“I had an internship in Kenya, but I hadn’t had the study abroad experience,” he said. “Here at Penn State, especially with working with Transition Partners, I get a great feel of what’s going on outside this country. Getting the opportunity to work so closely with students from different continents, it’s incredible. And I guess the best thing is when they confide in you; I think that’s amazing because you really feel like what you’re doing is worth something.”

For senior animal science major Ashley Fehringer, it was her study abroad experience that led her to being a transition partner.

After returning from a semester in East Africa, Fehringer decided that she wanted to switch her study of focus from helping animals to helping people by pursuing a global health career.

One of her first stops back on campus was the Office of Global Programs. She is now a seasoned transition partner and the president of Global Ambassadors, a student organization that helps to connect other Penn State students with study abroad information.

“I don’t know how to describe being a transition partner other than ‘cool,’ ” Fehringer said. “For me it’s really been an interesting cultural experience, and I’m very interested in working around the world some day. This has been really a good experience to increase my cultural knowledge, and I’ve made some good friends.”

During the fall semester, Fehringer planned lunch and movie outings and even took her IECP students to the local animal shelter where she volunteers.

“A couple of the students were talking about their pets at home, so I thought maybe we could all go, and I’m sure we’ll go again,” she said.

“Here at Penn State, especially with working with Transition Partners, I get a great feel of what’s going on outside this country. Getting the opportunity to work so closely with students from different continents, it’s incredible." 

— Mehari Ghebremicael

The first time Adelmarcio Nunes Noguiera met Fehringer was at a lunch soon after he arrived at the University.

Noguiera, an IECP student from Brazil, has enjoyed the conversation opportunities the program gives him.

“In Brazil, we don’t have this kind of meeting; we only have classes and lectures,” he said. “I think it’s very nice, and Ashley’s doing great work. It’s very good to know the town outside of Penn State, too.”

Noguiera said he also appreciates getting the time to interact outside of the classroom with IECP students from other countries.

“To see other cultures, it’s very fantastic because we don’t know how big the world is,” he said. “In the classroom, we know the words, but the conversation is better improved outside the class. I think we all also learn so much about the other cultures.”

While the IECP program has been at Penn State since 1976, the Transition Partners program was only founded last fall.

“The interaction is always positive when the IECP students are interacting with American students,” said Chelsea Benton-Monahan, student programing assistant in the Office of Global Programs.

Penn State students need to apply to the program to become a transition partner and, when chosen, will receive a small stipend for their work throughout the semester.

“It’s a great opportunity both for the transition partners and also for the IECP students to have another point of communication with campus,” added Heidi Vellenga, IECP director.

One of the most fulfilling moments for Chen, who is completing her first semester as a transition partner, was getting feedback from an IECP student from Brazil after a day spent cycling and having lunch with her friends.

“At the end of the day, he felt like the English he learned during the whole day he spent with me was much more than the English he learned for the entire week,” she said. “Because he was in that environment, he had no other Brazilians to talk to. He had to speak English. I was so impressed, and that really made my day.”

Last Updated December 18, 2013