Debbie Parker’s office is filled with trinkets from other cultures around the world. There is a camel tapestry, flowerpots and a miniature boat figurine. All of them are gifts from former students in the Intensive English Program (IEP) at the University of Missouri.
Parker is an instructor and coordinator of the language partner programs through the IEP, which helps international students adjust to life at the University of Missouri and complete their education. She has been working at MU for 25 years.
At a young age, Parker was interested in other cultures.
“I gravitated towards people from different countries,” she said. The curiosity and openness that Parker has translates to other areas of her life as well.
“I try not cook the same meal twice a year,” Parker said. She makes a new dish for every single dinner.
She loves to cook international foods and has even taught students how to cook food from their home countries. One of her previous students, Ibrahim, actually formed a friendship with her this way when she taught him and his roommates how to cook Arabic food.
Parker has travelled to many places, but the United Arab Emirates holds a special place in her heart.
“One of my former students invited me,” she said.
The student that invited her was Ibrahim.
He invited Parker to his wedding, which fell during a Thanksgiving break when Parker was not working.
The trip was special to Parker because she was able to visit her former student who is now her friend.
“His mother told me I was a part of the family,” she said.
This kindness to her students may have something to do with her previous experiences as a student herself.
When Parker was going to school, her father was in and out of the hospital and her mother and brother were in poor health as well. As a full-time student, it was hard to deal with. One time, a professor didn’t believe her when she missed class to visit her father in the hospital.
“It’s the good things and bad things that structure you and build your personality,” Parker said.
During the fall 2014 semester, Wejdan Alharbi was a student of Parker’s. Being away from her family in a different country was difficult, especially when dealing with family problems while she wasn’t there. She found some comfort in talking to her professor.
“You can find her outside of the class and she’ll be there for you,” Alharbi explained. Once she was in Parker’s office talking about an issue she was having and Parker asked her if she could give her a hug.
“None of my professors or teachers in Saudi Arabia had done that,” Alharbi explained. “She’s really sensitive and warm-hearted.”
Alharbi is also a part of the language partner program and the Lenoir Woods Retirement home program that Parker runs.
The language partner program (also known as the conversation partner program) pairs American students with international students so they are able to practice English and make friends. The program at Lenoir Woods has the same concept, but focuses on a different age demographic.
Paula Snyder, who has been working through the IEP at the University of Missouri for around 17 years, is one of Parker’s colleagues.
She filled in for Parker for a while last semester to help out with the language partners program and had a fun time filling Parker’s shoes.
“She tries really hard to make it successful,” Snyder said, describing the program.
Parker must match the American students with the international students.
“I actually wake up in the middle of the night and think about it,” she said.
Alharbi is grateful for the program because it gives the international students a chance to “meet real Americans.”
This matching is stressful to Parker, though she gets the job done.
“I need to think about longevity,” she explained.
This sense of longevity seems to flow throughout Parker’s lifestyle.
“She has a positive energy,” Alharbi said.