Building Community, One Conversation at a Time

Today’s Assignment

Building Community, One Conversation at a Time

It’s one thing to read and recite when you’re learning a new language. It’s another thing entirely to put those budding language skills to the test in a complex conversation with a native speaker.

At the UBC Department of Asian Studies, Professor Qian Wang wanted to take her third-year students’ Mandarin language learning to that next level. So she reached out to the UBC Learning Exchange, the university-led community engagement initiative based in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and created a unique partnership. Through the UBC Learning Exchange, Wang developed a program that paired her students with seniors in the Mandarin-speaking community.

Suddenly, those complex language challenges became spirited opportunities for shared conversation and a community learning space emerged for UBC students.


Students loved the seniors. They felt they got the real story from them — it opened their minds.

— Professor Xinxin Wu

As a university with programs and initiatives that reach into every corner of BC and beyond, UBC understands that optimal learning takes place in the community — not just in the classroom. ‘Learning by doing’ is authentic, long-lasting and inclusive of other people’s experiences and wisdom. It’s the kind of learning that leads to new thinking.

Established in 1999, the UBC Learning Exchange is UBC’s reflection of this kind of integrative, immersion-based learning. It connects students to the wider community — in this case, the residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. It’s a place for bringing together people who otherwise wouldn’t get to know each other — and that’s exactly what Wang was seeking for her students.

Knowing that she wanted to improve her third-year language students’ Mandarin-speaking skills, Wang reasoned that she could best achieve her goal by connecting her young learners with native Mandarin speakers. Through conversations with colleagues, Wang was introduced to the Learning Exchange, which offered a weekly, free English conversation program for Mandarin-speaking senior citizens in the Downtown Eastside — many of whom had moved to Canada within the last 10 years. Wang partnered with the Learning Exchange to create a community-based language-learning program, bringing 13 of her students together with these seniors.

What happened next was extraordinary.

The students not only had an opportunity to practice their Mandarin, they also had a chance to slow down, sit down and come to know someone with a background profoundly different from their own. Conversations spanned the gamut, from marriage and China’s former one-child policy to what employment might look like for Chinese university graduates. “Some of these seniors have lived through the rise of communism and the Cultural Revolution,” says Asian studies major Jordan Galpin. “It was great to hear their opinions on these topics.”

Sarah Makhmour, a student of classical Chinese literature, agrees, calling the sessions an experience of a lifetime because they taught her so much more than just language: “I learned not to be so caught up with life. People my age are always on the go, stressed out about life. So around the seniors, I felt incredibly relaxed and comfortable.”

“Discussions with the seniors made the textbook material stand up,” says Wang. “It was amazing to see how students benefited from this communication. They learned more than the academic side of language; they got into the core of Chinese culture. The seniors have not been ‘internationalized’ like some younger residents — they represent a native Chinese perspective.”

For the native Mandarin speakers — including retired teachers, business owners, engineers and clothing designers — the collaborative learning time with students allowed them to make an important contribution to the younger generation by sharing their personal stories. Not only did they come away from the experience feeling reinvigorated by the students’ energy, they were impressed with the younger group’s knowledge of and curiosity about China.

When it came time for Wang’s students to deliver presentations about their learning-exchange experience — in Mandarin, of course — many of the seniors travelled to UBC’s Vancouver campus to listen.

The English Conversation Program is just one of a number of immersive programs offered by the UBC Learning Exchange. Wang was thrilled with the feeling of open-mindedness, and the Learning Exchange’s willingness to accommodate community-based learning. So much, in fact, that she’s considering another, similar program involving students and Cantonese-speaking seniors.

Happily, it looks like the conversations will continue.

Today’s Assignemnt

Change the world.

UBC takes this assignment seriously. As a leading research university, helping to create new thinking in the world is more than just doing coursework — it is a commitment to finding global solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.

And it requires us to challenge convention. Ask Why? Pioneer. Explore. Create. Discover.

Because our world is in need of urgent answers.

Answers that will allow us to breathe easier, live longer, heal from disease, mentor potential, and spark new knowledge that will improve lives, not only in our community, but around the planet.

We work hard at making a difference. Discover some of the assignments we’ve taken on and the people behind the innovation that is improving, inspiring and changing the lives of British Columbians, Canadians, and the world.