Abington students, local residents share conversations and cultures

Abington conversation partners

Penn State Abington student Wardah F. Ibrahim and community volunteer Tumi Ojutalayo discuss how different milestones such as birthdays, births, and deaths are marked in their respective cultures.

Credit: Zack Gething

ABINGTON, Pa. — Penn State Abington is one of the most diverse campuses within Penn State and as such the college makes it a priority to embrace its broad variety of cultures and languages inside and outside of the classroom. One faculty member, Grace Lee-Amuzie, has developed a novel way of doing so through the course AMST 197 Intercultural Conversation.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic — which has led to remote learning at the University's campuses across the state — Abington's local residents would come to Lee-Amuzie's class each week and pair off with students to discuss specific topics and learn some of the intricacies of other cultures and languages along the way. Each duo was supplied with a grid of questions relevant to the theme to help keep the conversation flowing.

“The purpose is to provide international students with opportunities for meaningful, authentic intercultural interactions with Americans,” Lee-Amuzie, assistant teaching professor of applied linguistics and coordinator of Academic Integration for Multilingual Student Success, said.

For example, one day students and their partners discussed greeting cards, which led to explanations of how their cultures celebrate holidays and mark milestones such as births and deaths. Wardah F. Ibrahim, a Corporate Communication major of Palestinian descent, and Tumi Ojutalayo, a volunteer, worked on the greeting card assignment together. Ojutalayo brought along a stack of cards to share including photocards and others made by her children. 

They discussed why greeting cards are so popular in America and the decline of the practice with the advent of social media.

“Some countries are more private and don't want to share even with cards. Americans are more open with social media. It’s no longer private. People feel like they have to post it,” Ojutalayo said. “In America people like to express thoughts, emotions, and concerns by writing cards and posting on social media."

“In my culture, it would never be just the card. It would be the card and something else. People like to do things in person,” Ibrahim said, while recalling hand-delivering hundreds of wedding invitations for a family member. “If there’s a funeral, we make food, but there isn’t always a card.”

Janet and Bob Uetz are also the community volunteers. Janet retired from Johnson & Johnson after working in global research and development, and Bob was a programmer/analyst.

“I love interacting with students and hearing stories,” Janet Eutz said. “It’s wonderful to learn about the different cultures. This gives me life.”

Abington English language learners

Community volunteers brought greeting cards with them to spark conversations about how cultures mark assorted milestones.

Credit: Zack Gething

Lee-Amuzie said both volunteers and her students look forward to the sessions, which she plans to continue remotely.

“It seems that generational gaps between students and volunteers are pluses for our purpose,” she said. “My sense is that students feel free to ask why-questions about the American culture without being afraid of offending the other or his/her perceptions.

“Some students told me that they feel like their partner is like their American grandparent, uncle or aunt. When I observe the pairs interacting, it is very obvious that students and volunteers alike truly enjoy talking to each other," said Lee-Amuzie.

About Penn State Abington

Penn State Abington provides an affordable, accessible and high-impact education resulting in the success of a diverse student body. It is committed to student success through innovative approaches to 21st-century public higher education within a world-class research university. With about 3,700 students, Penn State Abington is a residential campus that offers baccalaureate degrees in 21 majors, undergraduate research, the Schreyer honors program, NCAA Division III athletics, and more.