Inside the English Pal Program

Stony Brook University has been identified as one of the most diverse universities in the United States with over 1,300 new international students entering Stony Brook this past Fall 2016, the majority of them coming from China (52%), India (23%), and South Korea (10%). The U.S. alone carries the world’s largest international student population of over 800,000 students, contributing over $32.8 billion to the U.S economy during the 2015-2016 academic year.

With education aside, what do most international students gain from us? What do they learn from touching new soil and living freely as American college students do? What barriers and lessons do they learn on the way? A program on Stony Brook’s campus allows us to learn from both the student from overseas to the student living in Stony Brook’s backyard.

This program is called English Pal, a conversational English program that allows international students time to learn and speak freely with domestic peers on campus from 10-12 weeks. This program is run by the International Student Organization and the Golden Key International Honour society at Stony Brook.I participated in the English Pal program this year and got to be paired with a Japanese girl named Rika Miyake, a 21-year-old, Junior English major who was not only very sweet but also interesting. My interactions with her on a weekly and sometimes bi-weekly basis lead us to become friends and learn more and more about each other along the way, from embarrassing facts to humorous questions like “Do American girls wear underwear?” My answer being subjective: Yes.

Rika originally joined to make American friends and learn what she calls “natural English,” such as New York slang. She also admitted to cursing a whole lot more in English without a second thought. “You can’t learn this talk in literature.”

International student Tuya Yokoyama, a Senior Human Biology major, talks more about how she felt as a Freshman coming from Japan like Rika, "I felt overwhelmed, lonely, homesick, really worried about my future. I felt a lot of family pressure as well.” Even though her family was very supportive of her studying in the U.S, she still felt obligated to exceed expectations. “I was creating pressure out of nowhere and putting it on myself.” 

Coming to New York also put Tuya in a diversity culture shock from what she used to back in her homeland. “If you’re Japanese, you’re expected to be looking like Asian and nothing else. If you don’t look Japanese, you’re not Japanese. But when I came to the U.S you can look different and still be whatever. There’s no set American person.”

For other people in the program like Sai Sreenivasamurthy, a Junior Biomedical Engineering major she says she enjoys being paired with international students and that it’s her 3rd semester participating in the program. One big difference she noticed with her current English Pal (who was from Korea), is that culture wise, her pal felt that it was odd how “inquisitive” people were here in the U.S. She wasn’t used to people wanting to know about one another and asking a lot of questions. She says how her pal was surprised that she was really trying to get to know her.

Foreigners sometimes don’t know what to expect from the country they visit and come over expecting certain ways from people depicted in movies or in the news to become shocked culturally by what they learn or do not learn. My English Pal Rika felt the same way and wasn’t use to America’s “common courtesy,” and thus learned how to say phrases like “Have a good day” and “How are you?” She said that experiencing these daily interactions helped her “pay more attention to others,” and say things she would never say back in Japan.

English Pal, Tao Wang, a Senior Biomedical Engineering major says that he joined his Freshman year of college after coming from China. “I joined to improve my English from China, and I wanted to make English speaking friends. They showed me around campus and took me out. I came back for another year because I saw the value in it.”

After speaking to many domestic students one thing that shocked him was that “most people compare China to North Korea and it’s not like that; the censorship in China is bad, I have to admit. We can’t use Facebook or YouTube but it doesn’t mean we're totally blocked, we can still go out. We’re an open country.” This goes to show that people perceive countries and their cultures differently.

The U.S is represented and portrayed in ways that allure people from all around the world. Remy Ballew, a Senior Asian Studies major and an English Pal veteran, has been involved in the program for seven semesters now and loves it. One thing she learned from being a pal this whole time is how lucky she is to know English. “It’s not their first language, they have to learn it plus study Biology, Chemistry and etc all in English. It makes you feel grateful.”

Her pal, Hyun Jaecho, was also thankful for Remy’s patience, guidance, and college’s most popular sport: beer pong.

Mixing both domestic and international students allows more diversity and better understanding than any book, TV show, or new segment ever could.

Learn how to get involved with the English Pal program here!