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Hanadi AlMazroue and Jeddah Canever were shown just how small the world is when they signed up for the Conversation Partners Program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville's English Language Institute (ELI).
The ELI is a UT institution affiliated with the Center for International Education. Located in a house on the outskirts of campus, it has its own academic calendar with six terms a year. ELI students are not UT students; rather they apply and pay tuition to the institute.
AlMazroue, an ELI student from Saudi Arabia, and Jeddah Canever, a Filipina-American who grew up in the Philippines and currently is a senior at Johnson University, became conversation partners last semester. As fate would have it, Jeddah was named after a Saudi city that her father loved—the same city that AlMazroue calls home. Needless to say, they became fast friends.
The Conversation Partners Program links an American student or member of the community to an international student at the ELI. They agree to meet for one hour per week to learn about each other's cultures, connecting the international student with the community.
The program provides an opportunity for international students to practice English and to learn about Knoxville and American culture and customs. Conversely, the American partner learns about other cultures and languages.
"I loved being able to meet up with Hanadi, learning not only about her but also her culture," Canever said. "We usually hang out at Starbucks or Panera and just sit and talk, just like friends would."
The two often discuss US lifestyle and tell each other about their countries and families. Canever gives AlMazroue advice about shopping and buying groceries, and sometimes they go to Walmart together and talk about food and brands.
"For me, it is a very useful experience because I am able to learn how to speak English without hesitating or being shy. I teach her some Arabic words, give her some Saudi foods and gifts and teach her about Islam and Arabian culture," AlMazroue said. "I think this program gave me a friend forever."
The Conversation Partners Program is just one part of the ELI. The institute offers first-rate teaching and a professional curriculum that garners partnerships with other universities and organizations around the world and produces successful students.
This term, ELI is offering forty-three courses at all language skill and proficiency levels, and electives such as American cinema, photography, driver license test preparation, and Test of English as a Foreign Language preparation.
"Just like if you came to UT to learn French, you would begin with a 100-level class and work up," said Jim Hamrick, director of the ELI. "I think this is one of the ideal ways to learn a language. If I wanted to learn Thai, I would want to go to Thailand and live there and be immersed in the language and culture."
There are currently ninety-six students enrolled in twenty-one hours of class a week, with homework on top of that. Additionally, the hope is that they interact in society here.
The ELI hosts a couple of social and recreational events per term for their students. Last semester, the students had a Halloween party where they carved pumpkins and took a trip to a local farm. They also met to decorate a Christmas tree.
Living in a new culture and trying to learn the language is tough in itself, but roughly 20 percent of the students who go through the institute move on to a degree program, whether at UT or elsewhere.
Mahamadou Diarra came from Mali, a francophone country in West Africa, and needed to learn English at ELI before beginning graduate school.
"The time spent at ELI was one of the best experiences I have ever had as a student," Diarra said. "It gave me opportunities to not only improve my English, but also to learn about American culture. I made friends from all over the world and learned from excellent teachers who care about their students' success."
After ten months of English classes, he was admitted to the UT graduate program in architecture in 2009 and also was hired by the ELI as a student assistant. He received a master's in architecture at UT and is now in Rwanda working for a design firm and teaching at a university.
"The English training I received was an important step before starting my master's program. It provided me all the necessary tools to go through the graduate program without difficulty. Three years back, I had thought that I would not have been able to carry out what I have achieved so far. Now I feel very proud and more confident than ever."
For more information about the English Language Institute and the Conversation Partners Program, visit www.outreach.utk.edu/eli.