Students from all over the world are learning and practicing English with volunteers through the Speaking Partners program based out of BYU-Idaho.
The program, which is associated with BYU-Idaho's Pathway Program — a course that puts students on the "path" towards higher education from a Church school while in some cases never attending class on the Rexburg campus — is a way to help students improve their English to further their education and obtain more employment opportunities. (See Church News June 11, 2011, issue, "Pathway program bringing BYU-Idaho to the students.")
Among the crucial elements that make the speaking partners program such a success are the volunteers, said Rebecca Cheney, international manager for the Pathway Program at BYU-I.
"This is not only a volunteer opportunity to connect to somebody around the world, it really is a life-changing experience for them and the person they are working with," said Sister Cheney. "Giving of their time, not necessarily other means, just their time, is life-changing. I say life-changing because those who really jump in and do it build this bond with somebody in the gospel."
Through video conferencing, speaking partners meet with their Pathway students twice a week for 20-40 minutes each session and are able to converse and practice English in real time.
"That [video chat] element is crucial. Gestures and non-verbal cues help someone learn a language much quicker," Sister Cheney said. "And, since all of the conversations are conducted in English, there is no need to know a second language."
The program first started during the spring of 2011, with BYU-Idaho students speaking to 20 Pathway students in Mexico. Since then, the volunteer program has grown to include BYU-Idaho students, faculty, community members and now Church members throughout the United States and internationally, speaking with students in Peru, Ghana, Albania, Russia and from classrooms throughout the United States. Currently enrolled are 693 students from around the world, with more growth expected when two new countries — Ecuador and Guatemala — join next semester.
The Pathway program includes one class each semester for three semesters. Subjects from the Pathway classes include religion, finances and writing and give students topics to talk about with their speaking partners.
Although improving English skills is the main goal, many other benefits come from these speaking sessions.
"As a side [benefit], they build a relationship with somebody — they trust in them, engage in meaningful conversations and receive feedback and help," said Sister Cheney. "They get to where they really trust [the speaking partner] and ask them questions."
When Kendra Sanders began her volunteer work as a speaking partner she thought it would be a great way to practice her teaching skills. After only one semester she realized it was much more than what she had anticipated.
"I couldn't believe how much I was able to gain from the experience," she said. "Of course, I was able to critique my own teaching techniques and stretch myself to be a better teacher, but I found that my favorite and most memorable part was becoming a speaking partner rather than a speaking teacher. As we went over the lessons, my speaking partner would blow me away with the experiences and insights that he would share with me. He had such a different perspective on things and it was such a humbling experience for me to learn about his culture and his life experiences. … I went into the program thinking I might be able to change a life, but I didn't expect that they would do the same for me."
RJ Risueno first started skyping with his speaking partner in October of 2012. He said, "I had no idea we would become the best of friends. The meetings started as following a 'to do' list and then saying good bye, but it turned into some of the most enlightening conversations of my life." His speaking partner lives in Ghana, Africa, giving him a very different perspective and experiences in life.
Although the program began as a way for BYU-Idaho students to serve other students, it has become much bigger than the campus by extending the volunteer efforts to any Church member over the age of 18 who is fluent in English, has access to high-speed Internet, a webcam and microphone, and who is willing to give the time.
"I love that anyone can be a speaking partner, it's not just students," Brother Risueno said. "Any adult can receive these blessings as long as he or she is willing to reach out to someone across the globe for an hour or so a week. I would encourage anyone who has a desire to serve to take the time to participate in this amazing program."
"Being involved in Speaking Partners is a wonderful way to serve and has been a huge blessing in my life, as well as my Pathway student's life," said Alex Elder. "My Pathway student ... is from Mexico. It has been a great experience helping him learn to speak English better the past two semesters and seeing his progress. Each time we meet his English gets better and better. I have enjoyed seeing the blessings in life from being involved in this program. Because of the improvement of his English, he is able to do better in his job and has been given more job opportunities, and has also been able to improve his grades in school and get more out of the class discussions and assignments."