Community Across Continents

June 4, 2021
map of world made up of colored dots

The Bok Center’s Professional Communication Program for International Teachers and Scholars has always embraced community building as a key part of our work. PhD students are able to develop their communication skills when they learn, practice, and reflect in a supportive community of peers. This is especially true for international PhD students working to develop oral English proficiency, cross-cultural understanding, and teaching skills.

Before the pandemic, students would have participated in-person in Bok Seminars, met one-on-one with instructors, and toured the Harvard campus and Cambridge area to learn more about undergraduate student life and begin to feel at home here. But this year, not only were we teaching and working remotely, the majority of first-year international PhD students were starting graduate school from their home countries. How could we provide authentic experiences of Harvard’s campus and culture to people who had never been here? How could we help students activate and strengthen their English across distances, time zones, and cultures?

As students weren’t on campus, we found new ways to bring parts of campus life and culture to them. We shifted our regular face-to-face seminars to Zoom and taught in the evenings, which allowed students to engage with us while navigating departmental responsibilities and time zone differences. Our undergraduate team of Culture and Communication Consultants (CCCs) helped in bridging the remote divide as they participated in seminars, facilitated discussion groups, and worked one-on-one as language partners. The CCCs have always taken an active role in sharing their experiences and perspectives on Harvard undergraduate life, which was even more important this year as they created pockets of the Harvard community through Zoom interactions in seminars and discussion groups. Specifically, they managed breakout rooms in seminars to encourage small group discussions, provided feedback on oral communication skills, and talked about their expectations of teaching fellows.

Both the undergraduates and the graduate students learn so much from the experience of working together. As one PhD student shared, “I am very happy to work with [the CCCs] during this seminar! They are very nice and helped me a lot with professional communication.” As one undergraduate noted, “I loved everything about [working as a CCC] mostly because I learned a lot! It was an amazing experience to interact with students of different backgrounds and I felt like most of the time they were teaching/helping me instead of the other way around. I really enjoyed the seminars, they were very engaging and fun. I loved the discussion groups because I got to know the grad students more in depth and visibly see them improve, and I enjoyed meeting one on one with my language partner and seeing them improve as well.” We also increased the number of discussion groups for international PhD students, providing more opportunities for those who wanted a comfortable space to connect and practice.

A Jamboard of colorful digital sticky notes with discussion notes on running office hours, from Classroom Communication Skills Seminar
Notes on running office hours, from Classroom Communication Skills seminar

Outside of the classes and discussion groups, we launched additional online self-study programs. Our new programs include Pronunciation and Intelligibility, an 11-module program designed to help international PhD students improve the clarity of their speaking style in English, and Clarity and Coherence, a 6-module program on strategies to improve organization and grammar when speaking English. These resources provide needed flexibility for students across the globe working at their own pace, and we offered practice groups for students who wanted to get feedback and connect and work with others.

We are excited to return to campus in fall 2021, and we are looking forward to bringing the lessons and perspective from the year with us. Though we have always known that flexibility, patience, and encouragement are essential strategies for developing communication skills, this past year has underlined the importance of community. Whether on campus or virtually, The Professional Communication Program for International Teachers and Scholars is proud to build a community for international PhD students to engage with each other, undergraduates, and other members of the Harvard community while developing their English communication and teaching skills.

Learn more about our programming or schedule a consultation to discuss your oral communication goals and learn more about our resources.