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Image of Wen Guo.

Published February 28, 2023

GSE student receives prestigious language education award for cultural exchange program

University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education student Wen Guo accepted the Global Engagement Initiative Award from ACTFL—one of the world’s foremost professional development organizations for language educators—in recognition of her outstanding contributions to the field of language education. Guo, a PhD student in GSE’s language education and multilingualism program, accepted the award in November 2022 at the ACTFL Annual Convention and World Languages Expo.

The award recognized “Global Reach,” a unique language exchange program that Guo developed in collaboration with Ying Zhao, director of the foreign language education program at Capital Normal University (CNU) in Beijing.

Global Reach is a virtual conversation partner project for students enrolled in UB’s Chinese language program, and students studying English education at CNU. UB and CNU students are divided into small WeChat groups each semester to practice learning English or Mandarin, and strive to promote cultural exchange by talking about local people, communities and cultures in each other’s country. Participants gain global experience, increase their intercultural awareness and develop long-lasting friendships.

The Global Reach project started in the spring of 2019 and has continued for eight semesters, with approximately 200 college students from Beijing and more than 100 students from Buffalo participating in the program. In the fall of 2022, 55 UB students volunteered to serve as cultural ambassadors, partnering with 25 students from CNU.

“This ACTFL award offered a proud and humbling experience for me, my students and my colleagues in Buffalo and our partners at CNU. I am grateful to my mentors from ACTFL and CLTA, who provided me with wonderful workshops and ongoing training about virtual exchange and global engagement programs,” said Guo.

“I hope this project can also provide other colleagues and SUNY schools with a model for implementing and facilitating virtual exchange programs, which enhance intercultural interaction and collaboration with partners from other cultural contexts or geographical locations.”

Guo is grateful for the support of GSE’s Department of Learning and Instruction faculty members, including associate professor Lilliam Malavé; chair and associate professor Erin Kearney; and professor Janina Brutt-Griffler, as well as former Confucius Institute director Zhiqiang Liu and associate directors Bruce Acker and Huadong Yin.

“They have consistently helped and guided me with their knowledge, experience and expertise, and kept me motivated to achieve my academic and professional goals,” Guo said.

For Kearney, the appreciation is mutual.

“GSE, the department and the language education program in particular are so proud of the prestigious recognition the Global Reach project has garnered through a recent award from the national professional organization for world language education in the U.S., ACTFL. Partnering with Capital Normal University in Beijing, doctoral candidate Wen Guo has worked over several years to forge and sustain connections between UB students learning Chinese and Chinese students learning English,” said Kearney.

“It is clear in this project and in her ongoing dissertation research, that Wen is deeply dedicated to language education and fostering meaningful and enduring intercultural understanding through exchange opportunities, whether these take place in person or virtually,” Kearney continued. “In an era that has deeply challenged our mobility and connections, projects like Global Reach remind us that there is far more to imagine, build and question when it comes to the ways technology relates to our humanity.”

The Global Reach project is not the first initiative Guo has developed to facilitate connections between students in Buffalo and Beijing. While teaching Chinese language courses at Buffalo Seminary in the spring of 2022, she noticed that her students were interested in cultivating meaningful interactions with native Chinese speakers their own age—a goal that became especially difficult to achieve during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a result, Guo facilitated connections between her Buffalo Seminary students and students at a Beijing high school. Students in each country wrote letters to each other to share details about their lives—becoming pen pals and developing friendships.

“Students introduce themselves, the school, their school life and the City of Buffalo,” she said. “They want to learn more about a typical day as a high school student in Beijing: When do they start school? When do they finish school? What extracurricular activities do they have?”

The letters eventually evolved to Zoom conversations and real friendships for many students.

Guo believes that written and virtual exchange programs have the potential to spur positive cultural relations in global communities.

“My students are all excited about this cultural exchange opportunity. They are very curious and hope to know more about the students in Beijing… This project could transform their understanding and offer them unique and authentic learning experiences for students from both countries,” said Guo. “I hope students can use the target languages in real life and positively inspire each other.”

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