By Amy Herrmann
“Would you rather be buried or marinated?” he asked me. There were six of us sitting on couches in a room adorned with a world map and whiteboard next to the writing center in Taper Hall. I had been a conversation partner for four years at that point: long enough that I had learned to effectively facilitate a thought-provoking discussion among students of diverse backgrounds, but short enough that it had yet to become boring.
I suppressed my laughter and replied, “Definitely marinated,”launching into a light explanation of the difference between being marinated and cremated so they would understand why I would rather be slathered in barbecue sauce than reduced to basic chemical compounds. We then resumed our more sober conversation about death and mourning rituals in different countries, exchanging stories and information about our respective traditions with curiosity.
To me this was a perfect example of what conversation group sessions with ALI are meant to be: a deliberate fusion of learning languages and expanding one another’s cultural horizons in the context of a safe space at USC. For me, a language buff studying international relations, it was a job that built on my studies in a way that did not feel like work. Taking courses in politics, peace and conflict studies, human rights and religions across the world, and then having a few hours each week to pick the brains of students from the countries I studied, writing in sprawling letters across the whiteboard and pointing excitedly at places on the map, was like being handed the opportunity to come full circle and not only practically apply what I learned in the classroom, but also teach it and bring it to life.
Perhaps more importantly, I built relationships with people I would not have met otherwise and maintained them by working in the ALI office during my years in school. Sitting at the front desk, I was the first person to greet new students as they walked in, often in groups and chatting in their native languages. I’ll never forget the look of shock on the face of a student from Saudi Arabia when I asked him in Arabic if he had another copy of some files for the office. He exclaimed, “What’s going on?!” and brought his friends over to speak with me, confused, but delighted that someone like me had learned his language. After that point, I had several visitors to the office, curious to meet the girl who spoke Arabic. I answered a range of questions on anything from how to find good childcare in Los Angeles, to the best places to eat on campus, to where to travel on spring break, to whether I wanted to get coffee with a few students in the program (I did). As a native New Yorker myself, it in turn afforded me the opportunity to get to know LA. I realized I was expected to have answers, and I did my best to become a useful resource.
Seven years later and thinking back on the experience, I remember the day I applied to work at ALI my freshman year. It was the first week of school and I was perusing the job fair when I came across the table with staff from the office, who told me about being a conversation leader. The epitome of professionalism, I plopped myself down on the ground and filled out an application on the spot. That day catalyzed what would be one of the definitive experiences of my undergraduate career, as I spent every week thereafter at ALI and in the classroom, the root cause of the office’s enduring candy deficiency (never mind the fact that we replenished often). As I began to travel abroad to study, work, and volunteer in South America, the Middle East, and parts of Africa, I took the lessons I learned at ALI with me, including the need to remain open-minded and good natured, to talk to as many people as possible, and to appreciate the inevitable linguistic slip-up, which will almost always be more embarrassing when you make it yourself, but which also affords a level of comfort when you realize it happens to all of us.
Featured image from Wikipedia
Amy Herrmann graduated from the University of Southern California in May 2012. During her four years of studying International Relations and Arabic, Amy worked at the American Language Institute as a Conversation Group Leader and an Office Assistant. She now resides in New York City and works for an international human rights non-profit.