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Group Helps ‘Casual’ Ease Into U.S. Living
Being thousands of miles from home, surrounded by strangers and taking on the rigors of higher education can take newcomers way out of their comfort zones. But group meetings at Oklahoma City University are designed to put international students right back into their comfort zones while helping them make friends, learn local customs and work on their English skills. Weekly meetings called Casual Conversation are held in a classroom at Meinders School of Business with an emphasis on exchanging cultural ideas and picking up local ones in a relaxing setting. Casual Conversation was started and is organized by business school professor Zahra Karimipour, who knows first-hand what it’s like to be an international student in the U.S. “Going to school in a foreign country is a great experience, but it definitely has its challenges,” Karimipour, once an international student from Iran in the 1970s, said. “There’s so much to absorb about a new country besides just the classes you take, and it can feel awkward navigating through it. It’s nice to get together with other students in that similar situation, where you can make new friends and learn a little more about your home away from home without the pressures of having yet another thing to study or another test to take.” At the beginning of each semester, Karimipour holds an organizational meeting where the students choose the theme of the coming week’s meeting. One Casual Conversation session might be about world news and events, when the students talk about current events going on in their home countries, while another could be about food, in which the students bring their favorite home-cooked dish to share with the others. Karimipour started inviting guests from the entire campus — not just international students — as a way to help the international students work on their conversational English and to help domestic students learn more about international cultures. Once in a while a fellow professor stops by to talk about issues specific to international student interests, like a recent session devoted to a primer on the U.S. financial system. Mohammed Alsanie is a leadership management major from Saudi Arabia who never misses a Casual Conversation. Alsanie said the meetings are helping him get acclimated to life in the U.S., where he hopes to live permanently and start his own industrial engineering business. “It’s very easy to talk to people here (in Casual Conversations) because you don’t have to worry about making mistakes. We’re all trying to learn more about living here, and we’re helping each other get used to it,” Alsanie said. Chuan He, a student from China, is in her first semester at OCU and says she uses the sessions as a way to ease into college life. “When people come here to talk to us, they’re very nice and they understand that we’re still trying improve our English. They slow down and make it easy to understand,” He said.