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Building Skills and Friends Through Language Exchange



This summer I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of months in Taipei, Taiwan studying Mandarin Chinese at the International Chinese Language Program. It was a great experience and probably one my best summers ever – meeting new people, exploring a new place, and really improving my Chinese through intensive study.

Some of my cooler experiences from Taiwan involved language exchanges with local friends. I met with two Taipei residents, Angela and Lynn, separately usually once a week, and we would alternate between English and Mandarin conversation for a couple of hours.

It turns out that language exchange is a pretty common practice at National Taiwan University (NTU), where my language program was located. The language center on campus had tons of flyers from people seeking exchange partners, as did the bulletin board in the lobby of my dormitory (although it was actually a mutual friend who initially introduced me to Angela and Lynn).

According to Angela, who completed her undergraduate degree at NTU, language exchange has become especially popular in the last few years as the campus internationalized. She expressed disappointment that she could find comparatively few Chinese-English language exchange opportunities at her university in London. At George Washington University, where I go to school in the U.S., the opportunities for language exchanges are also pretty scarce. I’ve seen the occasional flyer advertising them on bulletin boards around campus, but there isn’t the same culture of language exchange that I found in Taipei.



For Angela and Lynn, there were a lot of different reasons for pursuing a language exchange with a native English speaker. On a practical level, for Angela it was a way to maintain her oral English, since she had recently returned from a year in England. She also wanted help going over the finer points of her MA thesis draft, so we devoted a lot of our English conversation time to that.

For Lynn it was a way to practice her spoken English before leaving at the end of August to work in Hong Kong for a year. She wanted to prepare herself for working in an English-language environment, especially having never studied or worked abroad before.

On my side, language exchange was a way to practice Chinese with a native speaker and someone familiar with the country. Our meetings were a nice break from the classroom environment, and we could chat casually about a range of topics. I found it helpful for picking up the common parlance that I didn’t really get from standardized Chinese textbooks and about which I didn’t always have the opportunities to ask my instructors. It was also free, whereas finding a private tutor in Taipei can be very expensive (compared to when I lived on mainland China, where I never would have done language exchange because tutors were so cheap).



Getting together for language exchange was also a way to branch out and explore different places. Usually I’d meet Angela and Lynn at a coffee shop or tea house close to campus or near the train station, but sometimes we would try to mix things up. One Tuesday for example, Lynn suggested that we see the university's symphony orchestra perform at the national concert hall, since she was a former orchestra member herself and knew many people involved in the show. One Sunday morning, instead of doing our usual thing at Starbucks, I met Angela near the Taipei 101 skyscraper and she showed me around a famous local bookstore after we finished our exchange.

On the other hand, because it was so undisciplined and unstructured, language exchange wasn’t nearly as efficient as learning Chinese in the classroom. It also would have been pretty difficult to fit into our schedules if the three of us had not been so free this summer, since each session took a long time, and half of that time was just chatting in my native language. Since language exchange is so informal, I think a lot depends on the rapport that you develop with your partner. If you can’t carry an enjoyable conversation together, then motivation and enthusiasm for getting together might fade pretty quickly.

Now that I’m back home in the U.S., I’m glad that I tried my hand at language exchange this summer. I feel like I gained something from it, although I also think in the end the benefits were more social and about experiencing new things than they were about improving my Chinese language. For Angela and Lynn, being from Taipei and already settled in the area, their goals were much more focused on the language-learning aspect. I’m not sure if language exchange is something that I’ll continue to seek out now that I’m back in the U.S., since I’m much busier here, but it’s something I’ll keep my mind open too depending on what comes up.

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Biden tells Morehouse graduates that he hears their voices of protest over war in Gaza

President Joe Biden speaks to graduating students at the Morehouse College commencement, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia.
President Joe Biden speaks to graduating students at the Morehouse College commencement, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia.

President Joe Biden on Sunday told the graduating class at Morehouse College that he heard their voices of protest over the Israel-Hamas war, and that scenes from the conflict in Gaza have been heartbreaking.

"I support peaceful nonviolent protest," he told students, some who wore keffiyeh scarves around their shoulders on top of their black graduation robes. "Your voices should be heard, and I promise you I hear them."

The president told the crowd that it was a "humanitarian crisis in Gaza, that's why I've called for an immediate cease-fire to stop the fighting" and bring home the hostages taken when Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7. The comments, toward the end of his address that also reflected on American democracy and his role in safeguarding it, were the most direct recognition to U.S. students about the campus protests that have swept across the country.

Morehouse's announcement that Biden would be the commencement speaker drew some backlash among the school's faculty and supporters who oppose Biden's handling of the war. Some Morehouse alumni circulated an online letter condemning school administrators for inviting Biden and soliciting signatures to pressure Morehouse President David Thomas to rescind it.

The letter claimed that Biden's approach to Israel amounted to support of genocide in Gaza and was out of step with the pacifism expressed by Martin Luther King Jr., Morehouse's most famous graduate.

The Hamas attack on southern Israel killed 1,200 people. Israel's offensive has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to local health officials.

Some members of the graduating class showed support for Palestinians in Gaza by tying keffiyeh scarves around their shoulders on top of their black graduation robes. One student draped himself in a Palestinian flag. On the stage behind the president, academics unfurled a Democratic Republic of Congo flag.

Valedictorian DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher shows his mortarboard with a protest image representing a Palestinian flag as President Joe Biden speaks to graduating students at the Morehouse College commencement, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia.
Valedictorian DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher shows his mortarboard with a protest image representing a Palestinian flag as President Joe Biden speaks to graduating students at the Morehouse College commencement, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia.

The country has been mired in an ongoing civil war that has plunged the nation into violence and displaced millions of people. Many racial justice advocates have called for greater attention to the conflict and for greater attention in the US to the conflict as well as American aid in ending the violence.

"Thank you God for this 'woke' class of 2024 that is in tune with the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times," the Rev. Claybon Lea Jr. said during a prayer at the start of the commencement.

The class valedictorian, DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher, said at the close of his speech that it was his duty to speak on the war in Gaza and that it was important to recognize that both Palestinians and Israelis have suffered.

"From the comfort of our homes, we watch an unprecedented number of civilians mourn the loss of men, women and children, while calling for the release of all hostages he said. "It is my stance as a Morehouse man, nay as a human being, to call for an immediate and permanent cease-fire in the Gaza Strip."

Biden stook and shook his hand after Fletcher finished.

The speech, and a separate one Biden is giving later Sunday in the Midwest, is part of a burst of outreach to Black constituents by the president, who has watched his support among these voters soften since their strong backing helped put him in the Oval Office in 2020.

President Joe Biden, right, congratulates salutatorian Dwayne Allen Terrell II, left, as valedictorian DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher looks on at the Morehouse College commencement, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia.
President Joe Biden, right, congratulates salutatorian Dwayne Allen Terrell II, left, as valedictorian DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher looks on at the Morehouse College commencement, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia.

After speaking at Morehouse in Atlanta, Biden will travel to Detroit to address an NAACP dinner.

Georgia and Michigan are among a handful of states that will help decide November's expected rematch between Biden and Republican former President Donald Trump. Biden narrowly won Georgia and Michigan in 2020 and needs to repeat — with a boost from strong Black voter turnout in both cities.

Biden spent the back end of the past week reaching out to Black constituents. He met with plaintiffs and relatives of those involved in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation in public schools. He also met with members of the "Divine Nine" Black fraternities and sororities and spoke with members of the Little Rock Nine, who helped integrate a public school in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957.

In Detroit, Biden was set to visit a Black-owned small business before delivering the keynote address at the NAACP's Freedom Fund dinner, which traditionally draws thousands of attendees. The speech gives Biden a chance to reach thousands of people in Wayne County, an area that has historically voted overwhelmingly Democratic but has shown signs of resistance to his reelection bid.

Wayne County also holds one of the largest Arab American populations in the nation, predominantly in the city of Dearborn. Leaders there were at the forefront of an "uncommitted" effort that received over 100,000 votes in the state's Democratic primary and spread across the country.

A protest rally and march against Biden's visit are planned for Sunday afternoon in Dearborn. Another protest rally is expected later that evening outside Huntington Place, the dinner venue.

US remains top choice for Indian students going abroad

FILE - Students attend classes in Ahmedabad, India, Sept. 1, 2021.
FILE - Students attend classes in Ahmedabad, India, Sept. 1, 2021.

About 69% of Indian students traveling abroad for their studies chose the United States, according to a Oxford International’s Student Global Mobility Index. Other popular choices were the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

Education Times reports the main influencers for deciding where to study abroad – for Indian students and others – were parents. (April 2024)

Malaysian official: Schools can’t turn away from global tensions

FILE - Malaysian's Zambry Abdul Kadir is shown at the 56th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 12, 2023.
FILE - Malaysian's Zambry Abdul Kadir is shown at the 56th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 12, 2023.

Zambry Abdul Kadir, Malaysia’s higher education minister, said protests spreading across universities in the United States show that schools can’t ignore political tensions.

Helen Packer, reporting in Times Higher Education, said the minister reminded educators that universities are key in the development of leaders, individuals and societies. (April 2024)

Social media breaks are difficult, but necessary

FILE - A person uses a smart phone in Chicago, Sept. 16, 2017.
FILE - A person uses a smart phone in Chicago, Sept. 16, 2017.

Between online classes, maintaining social connections and working on projects, college students can have a hard time disengaging from the demands of technology.

In Florida International University’s PantherNOW, Ariana Rodriguez offers strategies for taking a break from social media. (April 2024)

Many master's degrees aren't worth the investment, research shows   

FILE - Graduates at the University of Toledo commencement ceremony in Toledo, Ohio, May 5, 2018.
FILE - Graduates at the University of Toledo commencement ceremony in Toledo, Ohio, May 5, 2018.

Nearly half of master's degrees have a negative financial return, according to new research by the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, an economic research organization.

The study indicates that many graduate degree programs do not increase lifetime earnings enough to be worth it.

While 23% of bachelor’s degree programs yield a negative financial return on investment, 43% of two-year degrees and master’s degrees fail to deliver a return, according to the study by Preston Cooper, a senior fellow at FREOPP.

Cooper assessed the return on investment for 53,000 degree and certificate programs to determine whether a student’s lifetime earnings outweigh program costs and the risk of not completing their degree.

His findings show that a student’s field of study was the overriding indicator of return on investment at the undergraduate and graduate level.

FILE - Students walk past the 'Great Dome' atop Building 10 on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus, April 3, 2017, in Cambridge, Mass.
FILE - Students walk past the 'Great Dome' atop Building 10 on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus, April 3, 2017, in Cambridge, Mass.

Engineering, computer science and nursing bachelor’s degrees have high financial returns on investment, while programs in education, fine arts, psychology and English usually have low returns.

Graduate degrees in medicine and law tend to have strong payoffs. But a large share of master’s programs, including the MBA, frequently have low payoffs, according to Cooper.

Although workers with master’s degrees earn 16% more than those with only bachelor’s degrees, Cooper says the figure fails to account for students who had “higher preexisting earnings potential.”

“MBA students typically have high preexisting earnings potential, having often chosen high-ROI undergraduate majors such as finance and economics,” Cooper writes. “So the MBA adds little value on top of that.”

The study indicates that high starting salaries are predictors of high returns on investment. Degrees with starting salaries of $57,000 a year or more deliver the best lifetime returns.

But the return on investment of a degree can vary depending on the educational institution.

“Students interested in fields with low average pay can still find some schools that do well transforming those fields of study into high-paying careers,” Cooper writes.

The name for the University of Southern California is displayed at a campus entrance in Los Angeles, April 16, 2024.
The name for the University of Southern California is displayed at a campus entrance in Los Angeles, April 16, 2024.

The quality of an institution also matters, said William Tierney, professor emeritus of higher education at the University of Southern California.

“An MBA from Harvard is a likely ticket to a good job,” Tierney told VOA. “An MBA from the University of Phoenix, less so.”

But students pursue graduate programs for more than just financial reasons.

“Some degrees open up careers in fields that students may enjoy, such as in the performing arts,” Robert Kelchen, head of educational leadership at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, told VOA.

“Others can help gain access to social networks or simply help students learn about a topic that is of interest,” Kelchen added.

Cooper told VOA that it might make sense for students in degree programs with low returns on investment to switch majors if they can still graduate on time.

He found the worst outcome for a student’s return on investment is dropping out of college “because they must pay for one or more years’ tuition and spend time out of the labor force.”

Lawmakers who fund higher education have a responsibility in ensuring “higher education delivers on its promise of economic mobility,” Cooper said.

FILE - A graduation themed printed mural is seen on the Howard University campus, July 6, 2021, in Washington.
FILE - A graduation themed printed mural is seen on the Howard University campus, July 6, 2021, in Washington.

Nearly a third of federal funding, including Pell grants and student loans, pays for higher education programs that fail to provide students with a return on investment, according to the study.

Cooper’s view is that “some schools should shut down low-ROI programs and reallocate institutional resources to programs with a better return.”

“There's definitely this narrative out there that higher education is always worth it, and you should always try to get that extra degree because it will increase your earnings,” he told VOA. “That's reinforced by colleges who make lofty promises regarding their graduate degree programs' outcomes, which all too often fall short.”

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