Record Participation in VISAS Program from UVA community


Record Participation in VISAS Program from UVA community

A volunteer led program provides language services to 473 international students, staff, scholars and their family members

Elizabeth Wittner has run a volunteer-led program for English speaking and intercultural exchange since 1999 but notices serious interest from students who want to help in the last couple of years after the pandemic.

This year, she says, more than 400 volunteers applied to the program, which is a part of the Center for American English Language and Culture (CAELC). She and her team were able to place 352 volunteers in various capacities. “These students provide services to 473 international students, staff, scholars and their family members,” says Wittner adding that she could not have imagined the growth when she started the program with 6 volunteers two decades ago.

People who join VISAS are interested in studying languages, learning about other cultures, meeting new people, andhelping others adjust to their new home  Wittner says many people who get involved in VISAS have experience living outside of the US or are first generation Americans and have been through ESL programs themselves.

The volunteers are themselves students, staff, faculty and scholars at the university and usually fill one of the following positions:

  • Language Consultant (language partner weekly one- hour conversation practice and intercultural exchange),
VISAS volunteers
VISAS volunteers working with employees partners on English in the Workplace Program. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Wittner

•    Classroom Consultant (help prepare international TAs by providing feedback on practice teaching in ESL class for prospective international TAs)
•     ESL Assistant – Assist with CAELC oral ESL classes for graduate students
•    Teaching Consultant – Observe and consult with new international TAs in their sections.
•    Workplace ESL Assistant – Work directly with an international UVA employee on English communication skills.  
•    VISAS Café – work with our VISAS Café staff to facilitate intercultural discussions and English practice in a larger group

Wittner says that it has been a great semester for all the programs. “We are now in our fifth week- halfway through our 10-week semester cycle,” she says adding that a nice gauge of interest is the participation in weekly discussion group VISAS Café. “There is so much engagement that we are having trouble keeping the snack plates filled, but the best part is many people who show up aren't even involved in VISAS, so the word is really getting out,” says Elsa Thompson, CAELC Program Assistant.

Travis Schuck is one of 11 undergraduate interns who helps lead the VISAS program. As the Language Consultant Intern, Travis engages over 500 international and domestic participants in intercultural partnerships. “Everyone is so engaged and appreciative of the opportunity to form meaningful connections and learn new things,” says Schuck. “It's truly such a fun and lively program to be a part of!”

One of the volunteers in that program, Nalani Butler says that her meetings have gone well this Fall. “We never seem to run out of things to talk about”, she says. “Our conversations have included everything from her weekend trip to New York with her husband to the Never Have I Ever television show series on Netflix. We’ve bonded over our love for travel giving each other tips for yummy food, and activity.”

The reactions from the international partners have been equally enthusiastic about their weekly meetups. Ni Luh Suri Laksmi Krisnahas been coming to VISAS this semester. “We really enjoyed strolling around the Old Cabell Hall where we ended up finding Music Library like we find a gem,” says Ni Luh Suri Laksmi of her language partner, adding that they spent time talking about the building and how its maintained carefully. “We also talked about how drastic the weather has changed overnight recently with the hurricane and I’m excited to explore C'ville more during autumn time.”

VISAS group
VISAS cafe where students practice their English speaking skills.

According to Wittner, the numbers have grown since the pandemic as people are eager to gather in person and in groups. They are quite enthusiastic about face-to-face conversation after being starved of that through the isolation of COVID.

“One of the things I’ve learned over the 22 years I’ve been working with international students and staff is that it is not easy to meet Americans incidentally,” she says. “From working with undergrads, I’ve learned that it has become increasingly difficult for them to meet people outside of their social “bubbles”. We all need to be more deliberate about connecting with one another.

She added that one of the reasons this project is popular is because it creates structures for people to meet and spend time with people they would otherwise never meet. “Though our own cultures are sometimes invisible to us, here is a time when we not only encounter other people’s cultures, but we become more aware and conscious of our own.”

If you are interested in learning more about VISAS, Wittner encourages you to come to their Global Café during Global Week Wednesday for games from different cultures, November 2nd from 5-6 PM in the Nau Courtyard & Atrium!