The Small Talk project was created at HSE University over 18 months ago, as a response to the beginning of the pandemic. Hundreds of volunteers have since joined the project, which was launched by the Volunteer Centre and the Third Mission Centre together with Moscow Longevity project in order to help retired people learn foreign languages. Many of them were unable to attend the on-site classes that had been previously offered, but HSE students and staff were there to help.
Now, the project is in its fifth season, which means hundreds of happy senior citizens and hundreds of volunteers who have found friends or a calling to teaching. We talked to the volunteers, the organizers and the students about their impressions of the project and found out what 15 minutes of small talk can offer.
I believe that the limitations in social and intellectual activities during the lockdown have led to general decrease in the health of our longevity project participants, particularly as 18 months ago, not all our older men and women were able to take classes online and use Zoom. It was essential for us not to lose contact with our older students and help them survive this hard time of staying at home. This is how we came up with the Small Talk project: student volunteers who can speak foreign languages engage in short phone calls with older people. The project has become a huge success. Our longevity participants and university students supported the idea and, as of today, the project involves 140 Moscow Longevity participants and 100 volunteer students.
Our participants are very grateful. Of course, we have had cases when a student and volunteer couldn’t find a common language, but generally, we managed to solve all these problems promptly. Today, some of the volunteers have become friends with their older students and stay in touch outside of the project.
My favourite part of the project is when this happens, and our participants and volunteers stay friends beyond the terms of the project. Of course, I’m also happy to see our participants’ progress.
I have been studying English as part of the Small Talk project for over a year. It offers me plenty of great practice! My volunteer’s name is Alfia Kusainova. She is very commited and friendly and great at explaining when something is unclear. I really appreciate this! And I hope to continue participating in the project.
I heard about the project from a supervisor from HSE University. I seemed interesting and useful, so I decided to try. Personally, I like changing teachers when I study a language: each one has their own individual approach. Daria literally does what I ask her to do. For example, I’ve had a book for five years that I hadn’t been able to translate – French folk songs. Together with Daria, we translated and sung them; we also studied all the dialogues at A1 level on francaisfacile.сom. Before the New Year, we are going to learn some Christmas songs. Our classes always make me feel happier. Daria is kind, careful and demanding: even if I’m not prepared, she keeps asking anyway.
The idea came naturally. When the lockdown started in the city, some demographics turned out to be more vulnerable, more in need of care and attention. HSE is a university that looks not only inside itself, but at the community around. We decided to open up and support the people who need it. Since HSE is a partner of Moscow Longevity, we found out that many senior citizens had been forced to discontinue their on-site foreign language classes. This communication had been important for them: for knowledge, human contact, and development. Some of these people were living alone during the lockdown, which means that our project has been not only about knowledge, but also about human contact and attention.
The pandemic actually made this project possible. That’s why we can look at the situation from a new perspective: enforced limitations have led to the evolution of something new.
We had one really talented foreign student who turned out to be a brilliant teacher. Carl went above and beyond: he took care of several seniors, came up with various home assignments for them, and at the end of the project, even had them pass a ‘graduation’ exam. It was very heart-warming. We heard many similar wonderful stories of friendships between senior students and their volunteers.
My favourite thing is to read feedback from volunteers who thought that the project would be boring, but then discovered their vocation in teaching, met an older man or woman and became friends with them. It is also great to read feedback from the older generation: many love to talk about the volunteers, praise them and ask us to convey their thanks. This is a very warm and emotional project.
It is thrilling to discuss various topics with people from the older generation, to compare my understanding with that of a senior citizen. I would say that I have felt almost no age boundaries. We started each class by sharing our news that happened since the previous lesson.
I started participating in the Moscow Longevity project together with HSE at the beginning of the pandemic (at that time, it was not yet a centralized project included as part of the Project Fair). Nobody knew how long it would last, and the online world desperately needed the human touch. I had never been a volunteer before, but decided to try. I still remember how on the first day, I re-read the instruction on proper communication for volunteers about 15 times. Luckily, it all turned out fine, and for 18 months now, I have been conducting French classes for my three participants.
In addition to the positive feedback I get during the classes, I have met them a few times: we went for a walk and visited each other. Sometimes, I believe that it is my students who give me more: a fresh outlook, life experience, new knowledge, and self-confidence.
I have been lucky to teach a very well-educated woman, with whom I can discuss anything: music, cinema, literature, architecture, languages, protests in France and many other things. Recently, we have talked about cinema a lot; she knows much more about it than I do, and we are always recommending each other movies.
At first, it was difficult to take responsibility for these additional classes, to understand that my task is to build a schedule, to choose a topic for the talk, and to follow set times. It was very unusual for me: never before had older people expected me to teach them something and act as the ‘supervisor’. After a couple of classes, however, I quickly adjusted to this new status.
Anfisa Dmitrieva on the initial recruitment of volunteers, service learning and projects you can get involved in right now
In mid-May, the HSE Volunteer Centre started enrolling volunteers for Psychoactivist, a joint project with CCP (Center for Curative Pedagogics)