Program helps students build English-language confidence

Two York University students sitting outside at a picnic table and laughing on the Keele Campus.

By Lindsay MacAdam, communications officer, YFile

This fall, York International is launching a pilot program to help the University’s international student population build their English-language confidence as they navigate a new academic landscape.

The volunteer-based English Conversation Partners Program pairs “conversation partners,” who are fluent English speakers, with “student peers,” who have English as an additional language, to conduct one-on-one discussions for at least one hour every week for the duration of the program

In its pilot phase, the program is six weeks in length, including a kickoff event and a closing event meant for participant socializing in a larger group setting. The one-on-one conversation time between student pairs spans the four weeks in between. For each weekly session, students are provided with a facilitation guide via eClass that includes discussion topics and prompts, questions and a video tutorial with example interactions. Participants have the flexibility to arrange their meetups for times and places that are convenient to them.

Screenshot of the English Conversation Partners Program home page on eClass
A screenshot of the English Conversation Partners Program home page on eClass

In development since early this year, the program was spearheaded by Nikitia Cruz, international student experience coordinator at York International. According to Cruz, development involved researching what other universities were offering and speaking to international students to learn about the challenges they face. “I was a former international student,” says Cruz. “Although I did not experience many challenges having English as a second language, I recognize that York University’s international students come from all around the world, have varied educational backgrounds and experiences. I wanted to ensure that all participants have the opportunity to share their culture and knowledge of other languages in a fun and engaging way.”

Coincidentally, shortly after York International started the research and planning process for the program, a student reached out suggesting something similar. “That was a really great opportunity for student leadership development,” says Nethmi Kulatilake, manager of international student experience at York International. “So we connected the student with Nikita, and they ended up being one of the folks who supported the program development, too.”

The York International team is planning to evaluate the results of this program through testimonials, feedback surveys and, appropriately, through conversations with participants. “We’re planning to send surveys out to both the conversation partners and the student peers to get their insight on how the program is going, whether they are noticing the benefits of participating in it and if they would recommend the program to someone else,” says Cruz.

Then, the team will review all the feedback and decide if and where adjustments need to be made.

Fall 2023 participants in the English Conversation Partners Program gathered on York University's Keele Campus
The Fall 2023 English Conversation Partners Program participants gathered Sept. 20 for a kickoff event

Benefits for student participants in the program include developing friendships and expanding social networks, enhancing cultural awareness, expanding perspectives, and improving soft skills like problem solving, active listening and critical thinking.

Beyond the individual impact, York International hopes to use this program as a tool to support the Internationalization and Global Engagement Strategy at York. “One of the pillars of this strategy is to enhance the international student experience,” explains Kulatilake, “but within that, it talks about building dialogue opportunities between domestic students and international students, and building that intercultural knowledge across the University.”

In addition, Kulatilake hopes this program can support international student retention at York. “If it becomes a helpful tool for an international student in their first term, it can help them navigate their classes a little bit easier, their social environments, their overall confidence to navigate this transition, which ultimately could be one of the reasons they continue on into their second year, third year, fourth year and eventually graduate.”

To apply to be a conversation partner in the Winter 2024 term, visit To apply to be a student peer in the Winter 2024 term, visit For more information about York International’s English Conversation Partners Program, visit