CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo., Dec. 16, 2015 – Students at Southeast Missouri State University and the University of the Americas (UDLA) in Quito, Ecuador, have communicated through Skype this semester to build cross-cultural relationships and improve their language skills.
“I wanted my students to have a real world experience,” said Dr. Debbie Lee-DiStefano, professor of foreign languages at Southeast. “One of the biggest complaints the students say hinder their progress is that they don’t have people with whom they can converse and practice.”
This fall semester, Southeast students in Lee-DiStefano’s Spanish II class were paired with Ecuadoran students in UDLA’s Chat Intercultural. Southeast currently has a study abroad program with UDLA and the Skype project is an extension of that relationship. Lee-DiStefano, Jennifer Mullin, director of international relations at UDLA, and Wioleta Stocka, coordinator of short courses at UDLA, spearheaded the project to build a stronger relationship between the institutions and their students.
For two months the students talked once a week outside of class for 30 minutes, half the time speaking in Spanish and the other in English.
Their conversations have been about music, food, what they are studying, childhood, and what they do for fun. Even pop culture is discussed, including when the new Star Wars movie is scheduled to be released.
As their relationships flourished, more serious topics such as health care, family and current events were discussed. For most of the Southeast students their conversations lasted longer than the required 30 minutes.
“I met her mom and her family and we all talked together,” said Hailey Hornburg, a communication disorders major from Chaffee, Missouri. “We would talk for an hour or more.”
Having one-on-one time also helps the Southeast students gain more confidence in their skills and be comfortable to make mistakes.
“Now that I’ve been talking with my partner, it’s opened me up to just speak, even if I’m wrong they tell me how to say it right and it’s ok,” said Sean Seifert, a theatre major from Weldon Springs, Missouri.
As the two months progressed, the students found their speaking and understanding skills were improving.
“The more we speak Spanish we learn to catch ourselves and improve,” said Sydney Rodgers, a mass communication and public relations major from St. Louis.
“They speak so much faster, but talking with them help you learn to catch everything,” said Hornburg.
The Southeast students also were able to help the Ecuadoran students.
The program is an opportunity for the UDLA students to know more about the American culture and lifestyle, said Stocka.
“They are already pretty good, but my partner didn’t know any slang,” said Nathan Chandler, a history major from Sikeston.
During one of Chandler’s first sessions he asked his partner to “slow his roll”’ and had to explain it means slow down.
“My partner is coming here and is worried about his accent,” said Matthew Hayes, a middle school math education major from Cape Girardeau. “He wanted me to help teach him the English accent so he could fit in.”
For her students, the program brings the language to life, said Lee-DiStefano.
“This teaches you how to interact besides just memorizing for a test and moving on to the next thing,” said Haley Henson, a social science major from Cape Girardeau.
It also inspires students and young adults to travel because they feel comfortable about their communication skills, said Henson.
Three of Lee-DiStefano’s students are planning to put their skills to the ultimate test by spending two weeks in Ecuador over their holiday break this December.
“As soon as I heard about the trip I wanted to go,” said Lauren Hulett, an exploratory major from New Berlin, Illinois.
“The trip is a way for them to practice Spanish and get a taste of what a semester abroad might be like,” said Lee-DiStefano.
During the trip, students will visit the UDLA campus, the cloud-forest at Mindo, the largest indigenous market Otavalo, and the monuments and park of La Mitad del Mundo or “The Equator,” where the latitude is zero.
“I hope this trip will improve my Spanish, and I’ll get to meet my partner and friend,” said Hulett.
Even students who aren’t able to make the trip to Ecuador feel they’ve really connected with their partners and plan to continue talking after the semester’s end.
“That’s the ultimate goal, to keep the conversation going,” said Lee-DiStefano. “This has been a marvelous opportunity for us to use technology and establish relationships and put our students in contact with people from another side of the world.”