Not-so-close calls with international students

by Christian McCarville

There is only so much a student can learn from a standard lecture. Furiously scribbling down notes and converting them to memory may be enough to pass an exam, but may not truly prepare them for their lives past college.

Maria Villalobos-Buehner is a professor that goes above and beyond to amplify her students’ educational experience. Villalobos-Buehner is the chair of the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures as well as an associate professor of spanish, world language, English as a second language (ESL) and bilingual education. 

In each of her classes, she has incorporated Skype calls with students in Colombia so that her students can interact with those in a different cultural environment. They engage in interesting conversations with one another and learn a lot from the experience.

“Students meet every two weeks with university students from Colombia who are also learning English as a foreign language. During these conversations, Rider students explore several topics such as the use of social media in Colombia, the health system, finances in college, etc.,” said Villalobos-Buehner.

Her students are given a specific topic to prepare various questions for their Colombian counterparts. Once they speak with them, these students ask their questions and begin a productive conversation. Following this interaction, students are asked to write a report in Spanish about their experience.

The Colombian students are learning English at the Universidad Javeriana in Cali, Colombia, so they begin the conversation by talking to the Rider students in English for 20 minutes. The conversation continues in Spanish for the next 20 minutes. The class then has a group discussion about what they learned for the remainder of the class.

“Dr. Villalobos says that in her class, Spanish for Business, it’s really important to learn by being directly exposed to the language. You learn that what is taught in books — at least about languages — isn’t always necessarily used in actual conversation,” said junior global studies major Ashley Sherry, who is a student of Villalobos-Buehner. “Due to differences, such as dialects, you get to hear how other cultures express themselves differently than you might.” 

Both Rider and Colombian students learn a lot from each other during these long-distance Skype calls. These are lessons that cannot be taught from a textbook or lecture.

“These experiences have been carefully crafted to provide our Broncs with opportunities to experience Spanish in natural contexts while building intercultural skills,” said Villalobos-Buehner. “Having the opportunity to interact with people from different backgrounds offers the possibility to enhance our students’ views of the other and hopefully eliminate possible stereotypical ideas of the other.”

The Colombian students are also able to get a much better understanding of American culture and its education system.

“Colombian students find it really interesting how majors and minors work here. In my own experience, they find it hard to understand how it works and how it can be done in four years,” said Sherry.

Villalobos-Buehner had originally attempted to implement these international conversations into her classes much earlier but was limited by technology. She now has the resources to finally put this idea into action and it has surely benefited the education of her students.

“I made the first attempt back in 2008 at a university in Michigan, but Skype was still new and very slow,” she said. “Now that the technology is more reliable and more diverse, I have been able to do it for the last four years at Rider. The Universidad Javeriana in Cali, Colombia, and Rider University have been able to collaborate each semester, and I hope more language classes join this venture.”

Villalobos-Buehner’s dedication to developing an understanding of both the American and Colombian language is admirable and may serve to inspire others to enact similar ideas in other fields of study.

Published in the 12/4/19 edition

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