Conversation Exchange Program Builds Connections Between Chargers and Italian Students
Students studying at the University’s campus in Prato, Italy, describe the Conversation Exchange Program as one of the most meaningful aspects of their time abroad. It connects them with local high school students, enabling them to immerse themselves in Italian language and culture and, even, make lifelong friends in another country.
October 3, 2023
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
When Samuel Weinmann ’24 was spending a semester at the University’s campus in Prato, Italy, he developed meaningful connections with his classmates and the University’s faculty and staff abroad. He also got to know several Italian students – an experience that enabled him to make new friends while immersing himself in the Italian culture and language.
Weinmann is among the many Chargers who have taken part in the University’s Conversation Exchange Program – an opportunity that, he says was unlike any he’s had before. He’d taken Italian courses before studying abroad, and he was eager to improve his language skills in Italy. He says the program was a fun way to connect with local students – students he might not otherwise have had the opportunity to get to know.
“This experience and the unique ability to have conversations with local Italians my age allowed me to gain knowledge far beyond what I can learn in the classroom,” said Weinmann, an international affairs major. “While classroom environments often encourage and facilitate speaking practice, nothing compares to speaking with those who speak Italian as a first language.”
While Chargers are paired with local Italian high school students, they are indeed conversing with students their own age, since high school includes students up to age 19 in Italy. The program pairs Chargers with local students, and they meet weekly for eight weeks. Students typically find the have common interests, says Lauren Pugh, student affairs coordinator at the Prato Campus, and the program often leads to friendships between American and Italian students.
“They might spend the weekend at their friend’s house in the mountains or go to the beach together,” she said. “So, beyond a language exchange, it’s also a cultural exchange, and our students get to have a little mini family in Prato. So, it’s just a great opportunity for them, and one that students always love. They say it’s one of the best parts of their experience here.”
‘Meet friends we will keep for life’
The program gets students out of the classroom and into the community as they learn Italian and explore the culture. The Chargers’ new friends help them get as much as possible out of their time in Italy, showing them their favorite places in Prato and offering them tips on where to travel. For Weinmann, those connections were a great way to learn about cultural norms, such as etiquette when ordering at restaurants and cafés. He says having conversations in Italian outside of the classroom and in a more informal environment enables students to be more comfortable learning the language.
“The program was an incredibly enriching experience for me and the other students studying abroad – particularly because facilitating those same types of interactions on your own can be incredibly daunting,” he said. “By meeting other like-minded students in an organized meeting, we are guided into cultural immersion, and from there, we often meet friends we will keep for life.”
‘Creating lasting bonds across borders’
The program enables – even encourages – American and Italian students to meet off-campus. Stephanie Munda ’24 and her conversation exchange partners initially met through the University’s events at the local library. She says the events offered a comfortable and welcoming environment that helped them get to know each other.
The students then began to meet around Prato – at cafés and parks, for example – where they could practice their language skills and explore the city together. It was an experience that, Munda says, helped her grow – well beyond developing her language skills.
“Being in a foreign country required me to navigate unfamiliar situations on my own, and my ability to adapt and take care of myself increased, boosting my self-confidence and independence,” said Munda, a psychology major. “The program provided an authentic space to learn about customs, traditions, and daily life from locals, fostering a deeper connection to Italy’s way of life.
“Making friends from Italy created a network beyond fellow exchange students, allowing us to experience a more genuine and well-rounded view of the local community,” she continued. “The friendships formed through these exchanges often extended beyond the program’s duration, creating lasting bonds across borders.”
‘Practice our pronunciation’
Munda says the program was among the most transformative of her experiences in Italy. It was an immersive way to overcome language barriers, develop communication skills, and interact with individuals of diverse backgrounds. She says it also encouraged self-reflection while enabling her to practice her language skills in a real-world setting. Interacting with native Italian speakers, she says, helped her improve her own pronunciation and understanding of the language.
One of the most meaningful facets of the program was the opportunity for her to share her own culture with her language partners while learning about theirs. She says it enabled them to cultivate respect for each other as well as an appreciation for cultural diversity.
“My language partner, who was a native Italian speaker, generously shared their language, culture, and insights into daily life in Italy,” she explains. “Conversely, I had the chance to introduce my partner to my own Kenyan culture and background. We exchanged stories about our respective homelands, our favorite foods, and, even, the customs and celebrations that defined our lives. This reciprocal sharing not only expanded our worldviews but also fostered a sense of mutual respect and understanding.”
For Carlee Nassra ’25, being a part of the program was a great way to learn Italian beyond the walls of a classroom or the pages of a textbook. She enjoyed interacting with students her own age and learning about Italian culture from their point of view.
“I learned about Italian terms that were a bit more social, rather than the terms we would learn in class,” explains Nassra, a psychology major. “We learned a lot about one another’s cultures. It was a great experience because we were able to go to local places as well. One time they brought us to a café they really liked in Prato. They helped us practice our pronunciation and we did the same for them.”
‘Endless things to talk about’
The program was also an exciting opportunity for the Italian students who were excited to connect with the Chargers. Federica Huang, who lives in Prato, says her “impression of the U.S. was completely changed” after taking part in the program. She says being part of a small group that included three Italian students and two Americans was a “great opportunity."
“I was very honored to be able to participate in the conversation exchange with the University of New Haven students,” said Huang. “We could truly communicate face-to-face with native speakers, which obviously improved my spoken ability.
“Our group was all about the same age, so we had so many common topics to talk about, especially the cultural differences between the two countries,” she continued. “During these several conversation exchanges, I could feel that I was relaxed. Although we were not familiar with each other at first, we overcame that. At the end of each conversation, everyone still had endless things to talk about.”
‘Come out of my comfort zone’
Those opportunities to connect and develop language skills were also particularly rewarding for Weinmann, the international affairs major. While in Prato, he also served as a Learning Assistant for Chargers who were learning Italian. It was a position that, he explains, enabled him to serve as an “embedded tutor.”
Weinmann assisted with organizing and facilitating some of the conversation exchange sessions, helping to stimulate conversation and ensure that students were building their skills in English and in Italian. He says the experience was immensely rewarding.
“This experience was both challenging and enriching for me as it helped me to not only develop my language skills while working with the Italian students, but it forced me to come out of my comfort zone as a leader,” he said. “I was able to help teach and work with students in a real-world environment, rather than a traditional classroom.”