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English Conversation Partners launches virtual exchange

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Posted on: July 22, 2020

By Alexandra Radovic

What does home really mean? 

This is what language facilitator Philip Aronson asked a small group of international students enrolled in his class at the University of Maryland (UMD). Aronson is a volunteer with the university’s English Conversation Partners (ECP) program. He was referred to the program by the University of Maryland Senior Volunteer Service Corps.

Members of ECP join Philip Aronson (far right) for dinner before the program went virtual.
Courtesy of Philip Aronson

Aronson met with his six students for the first time on June 15, which also marked the launch of the program’s new virtual platform. The novel coronavirus pandemic is keeping students out of classes and at home. 

Students meet on Zoom for weekly discussions, in English, about things like food and family, and to share photos that remind them of home. This is the first time the university is offering ECP during the summer term.

Aronson said the program, which is part of the university’s International Student & Scholar Services, helps students (and their spouses) practice English and learn about American culture.

“I’m more culturally enriched by them,” Aronson said.

Participant Mohamed Fares said that meeting with the class online was not as effective as participating in person. Fares said that language learning is all about “face to face communications.” 

But he added that the coordinator of the program, Cameron Busacca, is doing his best to give students a smooth transition into virtual learning.

“Online meeting has advantages, as you stay at home or any place just [with] internet access,” Fares said. “No need for transportation, and surely more safe due to COVID-19 outbreak.”

The university’s ECP program has been around for more than a decade, according to Busacca, who revived it in 2016. She said the program was named English Conversation Partners two years ago to reflect new objectives.

“People like to converse in person,” Busacca said. “We follow each other’s facial cues and body language as much as we hear each other.”

But Busacca acknowledged that it can be hard to feel warmth in an online conversation..

“With that said … one benefit may be that the use of technology is that much easier, so groups can watch short clips together or read an article online at just a click away,” he said. 

Busacca believes that, regardless of the medium, the ECP program brings people together. 

“There is a real desire for intercultural conversation and groups where people can engage with and learn different perspectives from each other,” he noted.

While many traditional language programs refer to a teacher/student relationship, ECP uses the concept of facilitators and participants. The program’s philosophy is that “there is no hierarchy of learning, everyone has an equal opportunity to learn from one another, facilitator included,” Busacca explained.

He said the three main things that ECP gives participants are friendship, a place to build confidence in speaking English and opportunities for cultural exchange.

“I have seen, over the course of a few weeks, participants go from shy and reserved, to speaking English happily, smiling and joking, sharing stories about what they did during their weekend with new friends,” Busacca said. 

Students and their spouses can also schedule hour-long, one-on-one sessions with facilitators for a more individualized session. 



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