Hanging out is hard to do with no solid translation

Two months ago, Elizabeth Hartman, sophomore, walked into the Union and surveyed a sea of tables, looking for a stranger.

An hour later, she walked out with a new friend.

But Hartman’s new friendship didn’t blossom after a chance meeting – she is just one of over 100 students participating in the Cross-Cultural Conversation Connection (CCCC) program this semester, which pairs Americans with international students to teach more about cultures and erase stereotypes through the simple act of hanging out.

Each pair is encouraged by the CCCC Program to meet at least once a week to do things most friends enjoy – going to plays or concerts, attending sporting events or eating a meal together. Some students can earn class credit for their IPC or international studies classes by participating in the program, but many do it for fun.

According to Nicoletta Laura Cismas, graduate coordinator for the program, it not only helps American students become more aware of other cultures, but also comforts international students to have someone to rely on as they adjust to a new setting.

But opening up to someone you don’t know – and don’t share a native language with – can be difficult, said Hartman.

Hartman and her CCCC partner, Jean Cederick Gbedey, who came to the University from the western African country Benin, both struggled during their first casual meeting in the Union for an appropriate topic of conversation.

“It was definitely awkward at first,” Hartman said. “I kind of felt like I was talking to myself, but the more we met the more I began to understand where he is coming from.”

Cismas said before the American students meet with their partners for the first time, they are prompted on what topics might touch sensitive spots and are told to avoid them.

“We go over what some culturally sensitive issues might be, like politics, religion or how much you make,” Cismas said. “But we realize there may be some more issues we aren’t even aware of.”

But Hartman said she has had smooth communication with her partner thus far – perhaps because Gbedey is from a Francophone (French-speaking) nation of Africa and Hartman is an international studies major who speaks French. Through the CCCC program, students can request their partner be from a certain country or part of the world. They can also request a specific age or gender for their partner.

But matching students up with their partners and meeting those requests can be a challenge too, since many international students tend to be older (between 65 percent and 75 percent are graduate students), while American participants of the program are mostly undergrads.

“The biggest problems we have with pairing the students up are age and gender,” Cismas said. “Once we tried to pair a girl with a boy who was six years older than she was. The girl had a boyfriend and he did not want to let them meet.”

Cismas also said she was advised against ever pairing a Korean woman with a male CCCC partner, even if the woman never specified this on her program application.

For Elizabeth Effah, an international student from Ghana, her first meeting with her American partner went smoothly despite any cultural differences.

Since she had already been in the United States for seven months prior to joining the program, Effah said she was already well-adjusted to the culture but wanted to learn more by spending one-on-one time with her new partner. The two have gone to lunch and basketball games together since meeting at the CCCC kick-off party in February.

“I had already made some American friends here, but I liked the idea of the program, it seemed helpful,” she said. “Getting to know other cultures is basically the whole idea.”

Effah said she has also met more people from Ghana by joining the program.

Like Effah and her partner, Hartman and Gbedey meet when they can to touch base.

“We go to the Union to eat, we hang out and I’ve met friends of his,” she said.

Their busy schedules sometimes don’t allow them to meet more frequently than once every couple weeks, but Hartman said Gbedey knows he can approach her any time.

But Hartman said “He has my phone number and e-mail and knows he can always reach me for support or help with anything,” she said.

According to Cismas, one of the main goals of the program is for students to learn from their interactions with each other, both academically and socially.

“Both students can gain,” she said of each set of partners. “Maybe students here who study a foreign language can say, ‘If you help me with my Chinese, I can help you with your English.’ The purpose is just to have people come together.”

Students, faculty or community members interested in participating in next fall’s CCCC program can send an e-mail expressing interest to [email protected].