Lake Highlands resident Joan Thompson has never been to Mexico, Taiwan, China, Mongolia or Korea. But her work with “Conversation Partners” has given her an insider’s insight into these foreign lands.

“Conversation Partners” pairs senior citizens with Richland College students taking English as Second Language courses. Volunteers meet at Richland once a week with individuals or small groups to talk with the students and help them practice their English skills.

Both partners benefit, Thompson says.

“I’ve done this for three different sessions, and I have just loved it,” she says. “We gain more than they do – I’ve learned so much about other countries and customs.”

Thompson, like many of the volunteers, has become a surrogate grandparent to students far from home. Most were sent to the United States by their families for the educational opportunities.

“We have such fun conversations,” Thompson says. “I pick a topic for each session, usually current events.

“The students are always so polite, and so appreciative of our time.”

Marcelyn Caver, a neighborhood resident, also has formed strong friendships with her partners during the four years she has volunteered.

“We’ve discussed cultural differences in everything from holidays to how a wedding is held,” Caver says. “And I still correspond with some of my former students by e-mail.”

The one-on-one exchanges take students out of the grammar books and into real life in their new home.

Explains Ted Dornseifer, a volunteer coordinator: “The main purpose is to listen to the students speak English and help with word order and pronunciation.

“Volunteers also help explain American cultures and customs, as well as practical matters like how to use the DART system or order off a menu.”

More than 60 senior volunteers are working with about 120 students from practically every country in the world – from Asia and Africa to the Middle East, Europe and South America. The next volunteer session begins Jan. 14, and more volunteers are welcome. For more information, call 972-238-6393.