Bridging the Cultural Gap
This past semester, OLLI at OU paired up with the Center for English as a Second Language (CESL) to create a mentorship program. The goal of the program was for OLLI members to be paired with a CESL student over the course of 12 weeks. The original idea was for OLLI members to mentor to their assigned CESL student. What both departments learned at the end of the year event held in December is the mentorships quickly turned into friendships, where cultures were intertwined, traditions were shared and lives were forever impacted.
In the fall of 2014, CESL hosted students from 23 different countries. In the OLLI and CESL collaboration, students from six countries participated. In early December, OLLI had the opportunity to hear about the friendships formed throughout the semester.
Yvonne and Maria
OLLI member Yvonne was matched up with Maria from Mexico City. The pair bonded quickly over the love they shared for their kids, cooking and the Spanish language. Maria trained Yvonne in Spanish, while Yvonne helped Maria improve her English. “What you find out when you are studying another language is that you end up learning more about your own language,” Yvonne said.
Yvonne and Maria participated in many adventures together, including visiting the Paseo art district in Oklahoma City, where they had dinner and looked at art together. They also met at Barnes and Noble and discussed current events from their own perspectives. Sharing recipes and cooking meals intertwined Yvonne and Maria’s culture as one. Maria taught Yvonne how to prepare her chili relleno and Yvonne taught Maria how to cook her first American Thanksgiving dinner. “At the Thanksgiving table, we talked about why we celebrate Thanksgiving and why it is such a big deal,” Yvonne said.
When they first met, Yvonne asked Maria, “What can I do for you?” Maria simply responded, “Just be my friend; I need a friend.”
Since then, they have become best friends. Their friendship will continue to progress over meals and conversations about their families. Next fall, they plan to go to a football game together.
Betty and Ruby
OLLI member Betty was paired with Ruby from Taiwan. The two quickly hit it off after Betty invited Ruby into her home and Ruby fell in love with Betty’s rat terriers. The pair met once a week and decided to embark on an activity they both had never tried before: crocheting. Betty signed them up for classes. “The class gave us a reason to get together each week and have dinner together,” Betty said. Ruby’s mother crochets regularly; once Ruby returns to Taiwan, she plans for the two to crochet together.
Ruby’s cultural preferences were discovered when, Betty would pick her up to go to dinner at 5. Ruby would eat very little. By their third dinner together, Ruby explained that she was never hungry at 5 since she normally ate at 9 at night.
Betty shared her daily life with Ruby. “She took me out to eat, we watched a documentary together and we went to church together,” Ruby said.
The pair bonded over their love for Taiwan and formed a friendship that will continue for the rest of their lives.
Janet and Gilce
OLLI member Janet was paired up with Gilce from Angola. Janet instantly became the grandmother Gilce could turn to for advice about living in Oklahoma and traveling through parts of Texas. “I gained a new grandmother. Every time I talked to my parents on the phone, I told them I was going to my grandmother’s house,” Gilce said.
Janet and Gilce did a lot of shopping, visiting Sam’s Club, Crest and Kohl’s frequently. “I tried to prepare her for cold weather. I made her buy some heavy duty gloves. She wore them when it snowed,” Janet said with a smile. The two cooked occasionally, trying to incorporate fish into dinners due to its prominence in Angolan meals.
“I learned more about her country than she probably learned from me,” Janet said. But Gilce said, “By being a part of Janet’s life, I got to see that American people are normal people. They are just like Angolans, but in a different kind of way.”
The two plan on venturing out of Norman in the spring in hopes of introducing Gilce to other unique aspects of Oklahoma.
Kathy and Alejnadra (Ale)
OLLI member Kathy befriended Alejndara (Ale) from Columbia. Kathy did not hold back when it came to introducing Ale to the day-to-day activities of her life. “I volunteer at the Sooner Theatre, so I took Ale one night. She helped me serve the popcorn and drinks and then we got to watch the production, Our Town,” Kathy said.
Kathy opened up her home to Ale, “She helped me with an indoor house sale,” Kathy said. “And to show her what fall is like in Norman, on game days we did our own version of a tailgate.” Ale and her husband even took Kathy to Diwali Night at OU, which is organized by the OU Indian Student Association.
“One night Ale spoke in English and I answered her in Spanish. I got to practice my Spanish while she practiced her English,” Kathy said. The two plan to expand their ability to practice Spanish and English together over the next semester.
The ultimate goal of mentorship was reached, but having friendships form between different cultures made this program an even greater success. OLLI and CESL administrators are excited to offer this program again for spring 2015. If you are an OLLI student interested in being paired with a CESL student, contact Chris Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (405) 325-3488.