It was 11PM on an early December night, and I had just finished my assignment in the library, packed my bags, and headed for the Penn Shuttle stop, a free university shuttle service. It was particularly cold that week, so I decided to take the “lazy” option of riding the bus.
A group of students packed on the shuttle until it filled to its maximum capacity, leaving me and one other student at the stop to wait for the next bus to come. We exchanged “hellos” and as I could hear an accent in her voice, I asked where she was from. She told me she was from Wenzhou, China, and that she had been here for a year and a half doing her Master’s in Education. After making small talk for a short while, we discovered we shared many similar interests. For one, we both had a passion for language and expressed an eagerness to learn a new language. I proposed to Iva that I would teach her Spanish, a language I have been studying and speaking for the last 10 years, if she taught me Chinese. She excitedly agreed, we exchanged numbers, and arranged to meet the next night at the coffee shop halfway between our apartments.
For the next two weeks I met with Iva almost every evening. We talked, laughed, taught each other about each other’s cultures and languages, and began a friendship. Soon before we knew it, Christmas had arrived, and Iva and I went to our homes in China and Virginia, respectively.
When I returned to Philadelphia, I ran into Iva in the library. She told me about the growing need in China to interact with American students and teachers to assist in the college admissions process and receive tutoring on the GRE, TOEFL, and SAT. We started a company called Go America, and learned a tremendous amount about business and the education frenzy in China.
(Spoiler: this is where the story gets good.) We interacted with several Chinese students who had spent their whole lives preparing to be the best - they had remarkable extracurricular activities, the highest GPAs possible, and near perfect SAT/GRE math scores. Yet it was their spoken English that suffered greatly, and their TOEFL speaking scores that prevented them from getting into top universities.
Time and time again I heard the same frustration voiced among our students -- "Tom, how do I practice my oral English?" My answer was bland - find a language partner or seek out a native speaker in China. Both of these options were unrealistic, as having a language partner with another Chinese would likely result as an awkward failure, and native English speakers are far and few between in China.
It was then when Iva and I had the insight to match students in China with native English speakers in the U.S. through a mobile app. This is where our origins story ends, and where our journey to revolutionize how people practice foreign languages begins.