–by Karin Kapsidelis, Richmond Times-Dispatch
Bridget Baptist, a lifelong Richmonder, asked Roaa Khayyat, a native of Saudi Arabia, what she was allowed to wear on her wedding day.
Khayyat, who had been showing Baptist images of her country on her laptop, pulled out her smartphone to find a portrait of herself in white lace.
“Oh, that’s beautiful,” Baptist said. “I always thought Saudi Arabia was kind of a strict country.”
People don’t hear enough about the positive aspects of her country, Khayyat told Baptist as the two sat together in a conference room of the main Richmond Public Library this week. Khayyat was there to practice her language skills with 10 other international students from Virginia Commonwealth University.
“Diversity, Discussion and Desserts,” which will be repeated from 1:15 to 2:15 p.m. Tuesday, was also a taste of another culture in the truest sense.
Minkyeong Park made Korean pancakes and Xiaomin Wu cooked Chinese dumplings to share at the end of the discussions.
Khalifa Al-Kaabi said he was fortunate that one of his countrymen from the United Arab Emirates operates a restaurant, where he picked up an array of Middle Eastern sweets.
The community-based learning project is led by Audrey Short, instructor in the English-language program of VCU’s Global Education Office, to help the students become more comfortable speaking English.
“We really noticed a need to get our students more connected to the community, both for their language learning and for their ability to adapt to the culture here,” Short said.
VCU this semester has about 1,500 international students whose proficiency in English can vary greatly. Short said some of the students enroll in the language classes while their spouses are pursuing degrees at VCU.
Short takes her students to three places, including the library, as part of her Oral Communication class.
The students visit the Lifelong Learning Institute of Chesterfield County, where they engage with older adults. They play tennis with underprivileged children and help them with homework through VCU’s “Lobs and Lessons” program.
It’s a good mix of ages and situations that builds their confidence, Short said.
“Understandably, it’s difficult to speak in another language on academic topics, especially in front of strangers,” she said. “At the library, you don’t know who’s going to come, and so you’re really on the spot.”
About 15 people came to the library Tuesday for the one-on-one discussions with the students.
Some were there for a second time, including Baptist. “I found it interesting,” she said. “I learned about different cultures.”
Past sessions have drawn a variety of people from the community, including home-schooled students, said Patty Parks, the library’s community services manager.
The meetings offer the chance “to travel to places where we can’t go,” she said. “It’s just such a good opportunity for all of us to think about the world in a different way.”
–Karin Kapsidelis, Richmond Times-Dispatch