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International student builds language skills and community through esports

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: Recent computer science graduate Yiming Liu will spend one year back at home in ZhengJiang, China, just outside of Shanghai, while he seeks admission to a Canadian graduate school, where he hopes to complete a master's degree in computer science engineering. (Photo by Bill Hoepner)

Commencement is a landmark occasion for all graduates at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, but for international students enrolled in the China 1+2+1 program, the day marks the simultaneous completion of degrees from two universities.

New Blugold alumnus Yiming Liu is proud to say that he has earned a comprehensive Blugold bachelor’s degree in computer science, as well as a bachelor’s degree in engineering from his home campus in China, the Changshu Institute of Technology.

“Although COVID-19 really altered the typical 1+2+1 timeline for my program and required an extra semester, I’m very pleased to say that I now have degrees from two amazing universities,” the May graduate says.

Liu says that gaining language proficiency in English was essential to his academic success, a proficiency he knew would require work both in and outside of his coursework.

“Most of my classes in computer science required group projects, and this really helped to build my conversation skills,” Liu says. “The most important thing for international students like me is to get over the fear of talking in class.

“Most of my friends from China have had some fear of speaking in English; it’s hard not to be afraid that our accent or pronunciation will not be understood. I believe that is why so many Chinese students tend to stay together outside of class.”

Liu took concrete steps to break that pattern for himself, one of which led to a project in Dr. Rahul Gomes’ web systems course aimed at English language skills for Chinese students.

“Yiming took my CS268-Web Systems class and created a very useful website,” says Gomes, an assistant professor of computer science. “Along with his project partner Casey Chadwick, Yiming created a website about learning English for nonnative English speakers. The site included detailed training content for two standard college English tests for Chinese students, the CET4 CET6, along with training for the general TOEFL, the test of English as a foreign language. This project showed a great initiative on a very relevant topic.”

Liu says that computer science classes, like the career field itself, require collaboration, so these are useful exercises.

“I work on the front end of projects, what it will look like and how a user moves through it,” Liu says. “Others work on coding on the back end, that is totally different. But both sets of skills are needed, and so is communication.”

Practice makes perfect

Liu says interacting with classmates on group projects did wonders for his language confidence, but finding ways to increase opportunities for organic conversation would be key in establishing a social circle outside of his 1+2+1 cohort.

“In my first semester at UWEC I attended BOB (Blu’s Organizations Bash) on the campus mall, and discovered the esports club table,” Yiming says. “Down in the bottom corner of their sign I saw the logo for the game ‘Overwatch,’ my favorite game — I knew I had to try out for the team.”

“Overwatch” is a 2016 team-based, first-person shooter game developed and published by Blizzard Entertainment. It is a “hero shooter” game in which two teams of six players select “heroes” with various unique abilities to complete map-specific game objectives in a certain period. Early 2022 data reported by Active Player estimated current usership for the game at 7.3 million, with concurrent daily players averaging 500,000-600,000.

At his tryout for the UWEC esports team, Yiu recalls asking about the logistics of the then-new esports lab, which opened in 2019.

“Overwatch is a 12-person game, and the lab was set up with only 10 PC stations — we still have only 10, but we make it work,” Liu says of the need for two players to use a laptop.

According to staff in UW-Eau Claire's Recreation and Sport Operations area, that limited lab space for 10 is about to receive a significant expansion.

“The majority of evenings during the regular semesters, this lab is filled to capacity,” says Garrett Larson, competitive sports coordinator. “We will be taking over the overlook space in Hilltop to create 12 more stations for gaming and two stations for broadcasting or streaming.”

Larson says that while COVID-19 delayed the initial launch of the esports lab, participation has been high, with more than 300 current members in the esports club. For Liu, joining esports became a place to meet people and build true friendships with fellow Blugold students.

“Overwatch is a game that involves a lot of team communication between all the players,” he says. “When we practice, it’s not only about the strategies and actions of executing the game, but it’s how well we talk to each other throughout play. I learned so much more English just by being on this team. Back home I played this game in Chinese, but now I’m a top player of this game in English — that’s an accomplishment.”

Landon Massey, a senior computer science major from Eau Claire, agrees that the time spent on the esports team was an excellent way to improve English conversation skills for Liu, who Massey calls May. 

"When May joined our team, he had only been in the U.S. for a couple months and he still had a lot of little errors in speaking English," Massey says. 'Overwatch' is a fast-paced game that relies on quick communication and teamwork. By the end of his first semester, his game calls had really improved. May is a good friend and I'm glad I was able to get to know him through the 'Overwatch' team." 

Next stop: Master’s degree

Liu will be returning to China shortly after graduation and plans to utilize his time in required inbound quarantine/isolation to prepare applications for graduate school programs.

“I will be applying to computer science programs in Canada, several in Ontario, and also some in and around Vancouver where my girlfriend is currently living,” Liu says. “I’m still narrowing down my list, but I will submit eight to 10 applications.”

When asked if he has any advice for future international students arriving at UW-Eau Claire, Liu is quick to suggest a student organization or club because of the personal growth he says he made just by taking that step to overcome his fears.

“Although it is very competitive, esports is actually a very social club-like experience where everyone who loves the game can get involved,” he says. “No matter what your game or language skills are and no matter where you come from, it's a great place to socialize and relax. All the people here are friendly and very accommodating. Good food, nice environment, beautiful campus — I have loved everything here.”