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Student-run program promotes cross-cultural learning, service

A student originally in the Class of 2014 launched Seniors and Youth, a cross-generational Korean language program and nonprofit project that pairs a University student who studies Korean with a retired senior citizen in Yongsan Senior Welfare Center in South Korea for weekly 15-minute Skype conversations. Seven students and seven senior citizens are currently involved.

“You do a lot of reading and learning about grammar in class, but I think what students want more is the chance to apply that in action with native speakers,” said Yongmin Cho, creator and administrator of the program. He described SAY as a way to learn a language in a more casual environment than a classroom.

Cho is currently taking a leave of absence from the University and serving in the Korean military as a social service worker. He is expected to graduate with the Class of 2017. He came in contact with the seniors in the SAY program at the welfare center where he works.

Students who sign up are voluntarily committed to the project for an entire semester, excluding midterms week and add/drop period.

Students and SAY seniors are free to choose their own topics of discussion in the Skype conversations, from Korean current events to history to culture. Each conversation is recorded, and Cho analyzes them and sends students feedback that will help improve their fluency. A link to the video and a personal message from the student’s SAY senior are also available to the student.

Cho explained that he was inspired by a viral video from Speaking Exchange that featured Skype conversations between Brazilian students who wanted to practice their spoken English and senior citizens in the United States who wanted someone with whom to talk. Cho decided to add more structure and rigor to this scheme by setting up a schedule and creating a feedback system.

Cho said he realized that he needed to organize the program with a credible authority figure and thus contacted East Asian Studies lecturer Joowon Suh this spring. Suh is the principal project investigator of SAY. Suh visited the welfare center this past summer and began coordinating with the center’s director.

The pairing of a SAY senior and a student is based on their overlapping interests and the student’s area of weakness, Cho explained. For instance, he noted, a SAY senior with clear enunciation is paired up with a non-heritage student. Cho also said that he led an information session for SAY seniors to explain cultural differences and to advise that some topics, such as family and religion, should not be overly probed.

Suh said the students’ reactions have been positive.

“I want my students to become more confident with speaking with different kinds of people who have different kinds of accents and dialects, which we cannot provide here,” she said.

Frank Woo ’15, one of the seven student participants, said his experience so far has been positive. His SAY senior is very accepting, he said, and he now has more exposure to the language than before.

“It takes away the pressure of talking in front of people, you know,” he added. “I wish the program had been here a while ago.”

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Kelsey Henderson ’15 is also a student participant and said she helped Cho pilot the program.

“Time passes by really quickly when you’re doing this,” she said, “and although we have a three-hour class, we don’t get to talk a whole lot because we have 12 students.”

Henderson noted that an added benefit is that “you can’t use English as your crutch.”

The project has more depth than meets the eye, Cho added, because students are engaging in a conversation with what is becoming a rapidly increasing demographic in South Korea. According to the SAY website, about 35 percent of the South Korean population is expected to be over the age of 65 by 2050.

“You’re doing something meaningful,” Cho said. “These senior citizens have a lot of skills to offer. They are smart. They want to start a new life. They feel like they still have a lot to offer and want to stay active.”

The program has also been well-received by the senior citizen participants.

“I’ve done many things after my retirement, but soon it occurred to me that they were all for myself: exercising, singing in a choir, learning English,” Eun-Yong Yang, one of the seven participating SAY seniors, said in an interview conducted in Korean. “Then I heard about SAY, and I realized I could do something worthwhile for someone else.”

After her first calls, she said she began reflecting on what she had never consciously thought about before: her behavior and attitude while engaging in a conversation.

Before her retirement at 63, she pursued a career in education and worked as a vice principal of a middle school.

Cho said that, if he chooses to expand to other universities and senior citizen centers, this project could act as a case study to help improve the project as a whole.

“In the end, I hope this opens a new chapter for students learning Korean. It blends learning with service,” he said. “I’m excited that I’m providing the platform where that can happen.”