Coffee Chat

One UTC Meetup Group Helps International Students Create a “Home away from Home.”

By Crystal Wong

On the Facebook event page, the event hosts said we had to meet in front of Peet’s Coffee & Tea at University Town Center. There are three people huddled outside the coffee shop, shivering from the chilling breeze. One of them holds up a laminated sign that reads Coffee Chat, followed by UCI International Students on the second line.

It’s 7:27 p.m., only three minutes before Coffee Chat, a friendly neighborhood meetup hosted weekly at UTC by Good Neighbor Irvine.

It’s never easy to come from home to a brand new foreign place across the globe where one must learn to adapt to the American culture. This is where Coffee Chat comes to play.

Coffee Chat is an outreach event created by Good Neighbor Irvine from Saddleback Church. As a group of local American individuals, Good Neighbor Irvine takes interest in connecting with UCI international students to help them live in an unfamiliar culture, hoping to welcome and extend hospitality.

Renhao Luo is the host of this Wednesday’s Coffee Chat, where international students from UCI meet up for about an hour to talk about casual topics that range from life at UCI, home cultures and anything else that happens to come up. The only catch is that everything must be spoken in English.

“Volunteers from the Saddleback Church volunteer to help international students practice English, or just to talk to them,” said Luo. “Kind of like community service.”

Except the night seemed to be less of a community service event and more of friends catching up over a tray of chicken and waffle fries as the participants relocated to Chick-fil-a.

Throughout the night, more and more members joined in on the conversation sporadically, and what was once a small group of three participants quickly turned into an eager congregation of fifteen.

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Photo courtesy of Crystal Wong

As they went around the table one by one, each student shared their name, where they were from, and the level they were in as part of the English as a Second Language (ESL) program. It’s impressive to hear the students speak English so confidently and well even when it’s not their first language. It’s even more impressive to hear that these students who come from countries such as Japan, China, South Korea and even Kyrgyzstan have found a comforting group to encourage and support one another.

Coffee Chat’s affiliation with UCI began when Larry Sims, one of the ESL program teachers and a Saddleback Church volunteer, decided to unite the two.

The 10-week intensive ESL program that Sims is part of is a branch off of the UCI Extension International Program. Its purpose is to prepare international students for university-level study, career advancement, and the accomplishment of personal goals. The program also hosts various activities throughout the year to further introduce the American culture. Some previous events include Superbowl parties and Thanksgiving dinners.

Gracey Kim, a recent volunteer from Saddleback Church explains that, in addition to helping international participants understand  American culture, Coffee Chat is also a way to bring together different cultures, as students sometimes share stories of their own hometown.

After brief introductions, Coffee Chat splits into two groups with Sims leading one and Kim leading the other. Kim has a small red and white popcorn box filled with sliced pieces of paper folded in half.

“There’s no real popcorn in there,” she says with a small smile. “It’s actually filled with some questions.”

Kim explained the rules: the box is passed around the table clockwise, and each person is to pick a random question and then answer it. It may seem like a simple icebreaker to the international students, but it’s also a great opportunity for them to practice their English without making it seem like they were in another English class.

The questions are simple, some asking “what is the best gift anyone’s ever given you?” to “If you had an extra hour of free time during the day, what would you do?”

The popcorn box goes around the table twice with ease. Every once in a while, the topic of the conversation would stray from the questionnaire, making the atmosphere light and fun. Smiles lit up faces, and laughter rumbled from mouths as they joked around with one another.

On the other table, Sims’s group seems to have discarded the box of questionnaires all together and have instead opted to share jokes and stories. Crowded around Sims and his iPad are two students. The three are deep in conversation about a trip to China Sims made years ago. Sims swipes left, going through pictures of street signs and videos of street life.

Across the table are a few other students who are speaking their native tongue and trying to teach the language to those who don’t speak it.

The beauty of Coffee Chat is the budding friendships that seems to emerge from both old and new faces.

When asked what the purpose of Coffee Chat is, Sims simply replied, “It’s a home away from home.”