In AU’s International Student & Scholar Services (ISSS), a conversation has thrived for the past ten years. For an entire decade, the department’s TALK program has encouraged intercultural dialogue between American and international students.
College of Arts& Sciences graduate student Laurie Melin coordinates TALK. She believes most students find a far different conversation than the one they expected when joining the program.
“The goal is to help people recognize the impact that culture has on the way they view the world and interact with others,” she says. “The program ends up being a lot more about your own culture and cultural background than it does about ‘let’s learn about X culture.’ People expect it to be pretty culture-specific and about other people, and it ends up being culture-general and largely about themselves.”
TALK, which previously stood for Taking Action to Learn About Kulture but now simply means "talk," consists of thirty to forty undergraduate and graduate students from the US and abroad each semester. Divided into two groups and led by four facilitators – often past participants – these students meet once a week over eight weeks to explore topics ranging from cultural values to cross-cultural conflict. TALK also features events like an international food night, when a local chef prepares different cultural dishes for the participants to enjoy and socialize over.
The groups themselves represent the depth of diversity at AU, with only about four American students grouped with counterparts from countries ranging from China and Latin America to the Middle East and Africa. A popular program, TALK requires participants to complete an application process – which is highly competitive – in order to maintain the diverse nature of the groups.
ISSS Associate Director Kristina Thompson has been a part of the program since its inception, when she coordinated it as a graduate intern. Now serving as TALK’s staff advisor, Thompson recalls how the program has evolved into one that has helped ISSS win honors for intercultural programming like the 2006 Gold Excellence Award from the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.
“At the beginning, there was somewhat of an English language focus, but we’ve moved away from that. We’re much more focused on exploring your own culture and understanding how that has an effect on you,” she says.
Both Thompson and Melin believe the program is an important resource for international students. It’s something that helps them fully participate in and enjoy their time spent in a foreign culture.
“They’re studying abroad to study, so the goal is come out with an academic base of knowledge in some area, but you could do that at home if you didn’t care to have the cultural aspect of the experience,” Melin explains. “By making sure that the cultural aspect of the experience is actually addressed and not just viewed as something that will happen naturally, you can enable people to get more out of the academic experience as well as the personal.”
TALK has also impacted the facilitators involved, who are often graduate students in AU’s International Training and Education Program (ITEP). In fact, both Melin and Thompson are current and past students respectively.
“[TALK] attracts people who are looking to go into the international communication or international education fields because it gives them a real, practical experience on top of what they’re learning in the classroom,” Thompson says.
To keep the TALK connection and conversation alive, Thompson and Melin have arranged networking events in Washington DC for past facilitators and participants – many of whom have gone into the fields of international communication and consulting.
While the program addresses the needs of international students and also offers valuable experience for ITEP students, its existence highlights a defining facet of the university.
“AU has a real commitment to helping students build intercultural competence,” Thompson says, “and we have found that simply living in a residence hall or sitting in a classroom together doesn’t always lead to people having those deeper conversations. Having an opportunity to stay with the same group of people eight weeks in a row, you really get to know them and it gives you a chance to ask questions and hear different perspectives.”
In that sense, this ten-year TALK will thrive for years to come as a way to support international students and continue AU’s commitment to a truly global education.
To learn more about TALK, click here.
If you’re a current or past participant, facilitator, or coordinator, ISSS invites you to attend the TALK Tenth Birthday Party – Tuesday, April 24th from 2-3:00pm in MGC 200.