ROCKFORD — Once a week, Ed Westervelt sits down with a foreign student in the Rockford College student union for some light conversation.
Sometimes, they talk sports. Other times, it’s history or politics.
And in some cases, it’s just a chance to learn more about one another’s worlds.
The point of the exchange is to give these students, for whom English is not their native tongue, the chance to practice their language skills in a laid-back environment. But as Westervelt, a 78-year-old retiree admits, those weekly conversations are pretty fun for him, too.
"What I do is wonderful,” said Westervelt, a conversation partner through Rockford College’s English Language Institute. "I get the chance to interact with young students from all over the world, who have come to the United States. It’s a cultural enlightenment for me. I sometimes feel guilty that I’m getting as much out of this as the students are.”
In the 10 years that Westervelt has been a volunteer conversation partner — first in Freeport, and now at Rockford College — he has met students from Poland, South Korea, Venezuela, Japan, Spain and Senegal. They meet once or twice a week, for about an hour at a time, over the course of several weeks or several months. In that time, the students strive to improve their English to the point that they can begin taking college-level courses here.
"Over a period of as little as three months, in every case, you can see a decided improvement,” Westervelt said.
Being a conversation partner means demonstrating patience when words don’t come easily, and a keen ear to listen through a heavy accent. A primary challenge, when sitting with someone who speaks only a little English, not letting the conversation stall or become one-sided, Westervelt said.
"You have to guard against taking over the conversation,” he explained. "I don’t find the sessions to be stressful, except that in many cases, the student’s conversational ability is limited and there is some stress in keeping the conversation going.”
The experience has made Westervelt, a New York native, keenly aware of the challenge facing his students. He deeply appreciates those who attempt to learn English, and tries to pace his speech to help them understand.
"We don’t have the slightest idea of how difficult the English language can be,” he said. "If you go too fast, you’re losing the student. On the other hand, if you go too slow, they don’t really pick up on some things.”
The program has 10 students and 16 volunteers right now. Most of the students are paired with at least two conversation partners, said Christina Valiquette, director of Rockford College’s English Language Institute. Valiquette brought back the program, which started in the 1990s but had disappeared over time, about five years ago. She said students appreciate the opportunity to meet with conversation partners.
"They enjoy the conversation and feel it helps their English,” she said. "Many of them develop friendships with the volunteers that go beyond the classroom contact, and they may stay in touch for years to come. Many conversation partners help students with pronunciation and English idioms, so they really augment our teaching staff.”
For Westervelt, he enjoys hearing about his students’ native countries and cultures, and he tries to correct any wrong assumptions the students may have about Americans.
"These students have a skewed idea of what Americans are like,” he said, explaining that students often assume everyone is wealthy, egocentric and over-the-top. "I find I can act as a point of reference for them to see adult Americans in a way they may not see on television.”
In the end, Westervelt said that he and students often find they are quite similar.
"We both have a lot of learning to do about each other’s nations,” he said. "But there’s so much more in common, in terms of values that we share. Talking about the idea of right and wrong, about conducting your life in a proper manner, concerns about family — there’s a very broad base of commonality.”
As a retired airline labor negotiator, Westervelt appreciates the importance of speech and the need to communicate well. It’s the main reason he signed up as a conversation partner — to help others develop those skills as well.
"In my former work, the ability to express yourself, both orally and in writing, was very important,” he said. "I’ve come to believe that people who speak well have a much better shot at a successful career. This passes on the belief that the ability to speak well is important.”