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New Engineering Graduate Communications Center Offers Courses and Coaching

Offerings range from mastering conversation to effective writing to giving a research presentation

Before Wenlin Wu decided to come to Duke to study for a master’s in engineering, he had worked hard to learn English.

He was reading and writing in English at a high level. But the challenge, he said, was conversation.

Chinese students studying in the U.S. are “really good at reading and writing, and even listening, but we are afraid to make a mistake in conversation,” he said. “It’s embarrassing to make a mistake. So, often the safest way is no talking at all.”

Before Wenlin Wu decided to come to Duke  for a master’s in engineering, he was reading and writing in English at a high level. But the challenge, he said, was conversation.

This presents a serious issue, not only for international students, but for the learning community of students and faculty which depends one everyone’s active participation, said Bridget Fletcher, director of the Graduate Communications Center at Duke Engineering.

Wu received tools to tackle his conversational anxiety in a pilot class Fletcher taught last fall on the intricacies and subtleties of conversation in American English. International students learned about slang and about social conventions, like eye contact. The course included lots of practical opportunities to practice speaking. The learners reported increased confidence that helped them succeed as graduate students.

Now, in fall 2018, Fletcher and colleagues have launched a new suite of communication courses, coaching services and workshops for all Duke Engineering graduate students, domestic and international—the Duke Engineering Graduate Communications Center at Pratt (GCC @ Pratt).

GCC’s services are available to all engineering graduate students in the PhD, Master of Science, Master of Engineering and Master of Engineering Management degree programs.

“The GCC is an outgrowth of Bridget’s insightful research into the language and cultural challenges faced by international students studying engineering in the United States,” said Brad Fox, Duke Engineering’s associate dean of master’s programs. “It’s also grounded in the fundamental understanding that good communication skills are essential for each one of our graduate students, no matter where they come from.”

The essence of education, work and life is communicating well, Fletcher said—asking questions, working in a team or with a client, and publishing research results.

“When members of a community are understood, and are communicating effectively, the community benefits and each person in it is positioned for success.”

Bridget Fletcher, Director, Graduate Communication Center

“When members of a community are understood, and are communicating effectively, the community benefits and each person in it is positioned for success,” she said.

The new GCC team began providing training during graduate student orientation in late August. Four workshops touched on topics including U.S. classroom expectations and tips for effectively communicating by email. There was also a session for domestic students on understanding the challenges, social and linguistic, faced by their international colleagues.

The session offered ideas for how they could most effectively engage with international peers and leverage the wealth of knowledge and perspectives they bring to Duke.

Intercultural awareness among all students is critical, Fletcher said, because all students work and study together, especially with the increasing prevalence of team-based learning.

Giving just one insight into the challenges, Fletcher noted vastly different conversational styles, which she analogizes as “basketball vs. bowling.” North Americans “play basketball”—converse in groups with rapid shifts in speaker and topic, often interrupting one another. She contrasts that with an Asian style of group conservation, “bowling,” in which each person takes a very clear turn during conversation.

Joining Fletcher on the GCC team are four communications consultants: Minerva Matos-Garner, Sue Mathias, Marcie Pachino and one more, yet to be hired. Each will provide course instruction and workshops as well as one-on-one coaching available to all graduate students.

Minerva Matos-Garner was first to join GCC before the start of the fall semester. She previously taught and coached communications for students at N.C. State University. She has deep experience working with students whose native languages are not English.

“Language is my passion,” she said. “I have seen language courses literally change lives—they have that power.”

“The Graduate Communication Center is grounded in the fundamental understanding that good communication skills are essential for each one of our graduate students, no matter where they come from.”

— BRAD FOX, ASSOCIATE DEAN OF MASTER'S PROGRAMS

The GCC offers semester-long courses, individual and small group communications coaching appointments and skill-specific workshops. Students can access these services directly, or can be referred by a faculty or staff member. Faculty members can also include visits to the GCC for coaching sessions as part of their graduate course requirements.

This semester, GCC staff are providing courses on conversational English, engineering presentations and two levels of academic writing for engineers.

In one-on-one and group appointments, the communication specialists can provide feedback on writing for class assignments, email drafts and presentation outlines. Help is available as well for oral communications, including preliminary and defense practice.

There are also English conversation practice sessions available.

More information at: pratt.duke.edu/grad/students/gcc