Conversant program


If it weren’t for people like Shawn, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

You see, Shawn was a shy Penn State student of  the Horticulture department who wanted to volunteer his time.

It turned out that the Foreign Student Conversant Program matched us together in our first year of college.

That year as it turned out was my best year: how to pronounce “hor”, like in “whore-house”? onto going to frat parties where Shawn finally joined.

There are aspects of English which come across to learners as incomprehensible (what’s that silent “P”  doing there in front of “psychology”) to euphemisms we invented as we go along like “enhanced interrogation” , “assisted suicide” and Leanning-in/Leanning-out.

What Shawn did was :

– he showed me that he cared (by listening more than talking)

– he was trying to cope with the new situation on campus himself

– he was way ahead of the curve on environmental awareness and his calling in that direction.

We lost touch even during college, but I will always remember Shawn for his kindness and friendship.

The last time I saw him was at a frat party, in a crowded Greek-alphabet house off-campus.

We did not talk much that night besides acknowledging each other across the dance floor. So much for being “conversant”.

The fact that we were there in the same room, him rushing the fraternity and me rushing for life in America, said it all.

It was an unusual pairing: he from rural Pennsylvania, I big city. Shawn had not seen nor heard any noise except for Fourth of July fireworks, and I, witnessed practically every Cold War arsenal exhibited in the hot theater of war.

We found each other through the International Student affairs program. We often got “sexiled” (again using Tom Wolfe‘s term) and both felt proud that “WE ARE”  “PENN STATE”.

In our age of globalization, where a small dispute in the South China Seas could trigger a major war (Tonkin Resolution whose Pentagon Papers will be declassified Monday, and now China vs Vietnam with territorial disputes), we can use a bunch of “Shawn” for soft-power influence.

I did not tell Shawn much about my failed attempt at the US embassy in Saigon, or about my subsequent floating in the salty seas.

That fact was understood as subtext over rootbeer and fries. Shawn with a beard, and me hardly had to shave at all.

I wonder what he made of me. I just know that out of the 30,000 students on campus, Shawn was my friend, the very first one.

And the only one I have ever known to pick that particular major. I learned a new vocabulary out of him, if not a whole new appreciation for volunteerism. I learned another concept later in life: “paying forward”. To me, Shawn triggered a chain of events which last way past his freshmen year. He, in today’s social media parlance, essentially “friending” me, conversing instead of chatting. I miss those face2face days over rootbeer.

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