The Conversation Tree Initiative Earns Rutgers Human Dignity Award


This month Rutgers University recognized The Conversation Tree: Community-Based Language Partnerships for its achievements and commitment to promoting engagement among the many communities at Rutgers and in New Brunswick.



Mary Curran, Jessica Hunsdon, and Jessie Curtis at Rutgers Graduate School of Education partnered with Amy Michael at Rutgers Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Serviceto address a community-voiced need for English as a Second Language(ESL) support. Created in 2012 by Curran and Michael, The Conversation Tree unites Rutgers students – who serve as conversation facilitators – with community organizations that provide ESL instruction.

“We work across units at Rutgers and in collaboration with several local community agencies. This is a group effort to meet a community need,” said Mary Curran. “We are very proud of this program, as we have worked hard to design a program that intentionally puts carefully considered principles into action.”

The Conversation Tree aims to affirm diversity in communities and advocate for multilingualism. The program strives to foster local-global connections and increase participation in mutually beneficial activities between Rutgers students and community members.

The Conversation Tree is currently comprised of three initiatives: Community Based Language Learning courses, Conversation Cafés, and Professional Development efforts.  The courses focus on the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that contribute to working with emerging bilinguals in the community. The Conversation Cafés are informal conversation groups offered through local community organizations that are open at no cost to community members. Rutgers students, who are prepared for the responsibility of intercultural conversation with adult language learners in their coursework, facilitate the groups. Recently, professional development workshops have been offered to community organizations interested in implementing the Conversation Café model.

“We place students in the community to do service that is academically based,” said Amy Michael. “There’s an academic structure so that students can reflect and learn from the community, while engaged in the community.”

Since the program’s inception, more than 70 Rutgers students have facilitated almost three thousand hours of conversation with more than 400 community member participants.  

The Committee to Advance Our Common Purposes at Rutgers University established the Human Dignity Award in 1999 to honor those who aspire to promote social justice and diversity. The Conversation Tree was one of six recipients from the New Brunswick, Camden, and Newark campuses to receive the Human Dignity Award.

The Conversation Tree will donate the award’s accompanying monetary gift to community organizations to continue to support and enhance the program’s efforts.


The Conversation Tree has opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students of all majors. Please visit The Conversation Tree webpage for information on applying to this unique program.