Home Away From Home

International students create friendships over conversation


Students gather in 9F for talking circles on Oct. 10, 2019. Photo credit: Lily Lopez/SAC.Media.

Imagine being thousands of miles away from your family, friends and home. You are fueled by the determination to fulfill your dreams and better your education by traveling and adapting to everyday life in a foreign country. It can get lonely when language is a barrier in a place where everyone speaks the common languages unfamiliar to you.

Along Miracle Mile, students gather in a portable grey building that could easily be missed as it blends in with other identical buildings. Upon entering, you are greeted with friendly student staff eager to inform and help incoming visitors.

This place is a sanctuary and a comfortable space for the international students on campus. Three days a week small group discussions, called Conversation Circles, meet in Building 9F for non-native speakers to practice their English. International students welcomes all and includes Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Ukranian students among others into this small and intimate space to create personal bonds with other students. They discuss topics such as culture shock, education, career goals, honesty, relationships, social media and other open-ended topics.

Soft chatter can be heard from the students sitting in tables lined along the wall. Some are engaging in conversation, while others sit quietly focusing on their homework. A beeping sound blares from a room in the far corner, as a student carrying a hot pocket rushes back to his seat, takes a bite and continues his conversation while enjoying his lunch. This place feels like home.

“I feel like it’s really helpful for international students to be able to communicate with each other and meet new friends,” 19-year-old nursing student, Cristelyn Chua said.

Chua is from the Philippines and is new to the campus this semester. She expresses how she has already made friends from other cultures in the few weeks she has been in the program. Chua’s first time visiting Knott’s Berry Farm was on Sept. 26, when the program ventured out to the amusement park with the international students for a day of roller coasters and theme park food.

The program has many more trips and events planned for its students this semester, and the Conversation Circles offer a wide variety of learning environments for the students, which allows them to have fun while practicing their English.

“For most of us, English is not our first language, so it really helps to have someone who we can practice English with,” 21-year-old chemical engineering student, Farheen Dustagheer said.

Dustagheer is also a conversation initiator in the program. Whenever new or current students aren’t sure what to talk about, Dustagheer steps in and comes up with ideas. This leadership role allows group leaders to gain mentoring and leadership experience every time they work, which will hopefully further their academic and career goals.

The group started about eight years ago with the beginning of the ARISE Program under the Asian American Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions Grant, and they became institutionalized four years ago when they were taken under the wing of the International Student Program. The Conversational Circles’ mission is to have students engage in authentic conversation in a comfortable environment without any of the stress that comes with a traditional classroom environment.

Program manager and faculty facilitator, Laura Bishop helps operate Conversation Circles, and she is a presence in the larger groups that take place the first Monday of the month in building 66 room 283. She also manages the smaller groups which take place on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in 9F. Bishop also works in four departments on campus and is a professor of ESL and AMLA and assessment specialist.

“We’ve had a lot of fun over the years. We’ve had some groups that stayed together for an entire semester and got to know each other well. I think those are some of my fondest memories, watching participants and group leaders alike build lasting friendships,” Bishop said. “It’s awesome to realize that people from different walks of life, cultures and backgrounds, were brought together by out meetings and enjoyed spending time with us.”