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New England Bank Operates With Vault Full of Languages

OVER the years, Boston banker Shervin Khakian has been invited to graduations - and even to the weddings - of some of his customers.

Foreign students who bank with him here in Harvard Square have invited him to their homes in Japan and Korea when he has been on trips there.

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This is personal banking with a capital "P" and "B."

But that's all part of his job as head of the Harvard Square office of BayBanks Inc., a relatively small bank that has made a big priority of what it calls "international personal banking."

The IPB program, servicing mostly foreign students in the Boston area, has been so successful since it was launched here in 1983 that BayBank just opened a similar program in its Copley Square branch in Boston, across the Charles River. And the bank will soon offer similar, but more limited, services in about six other branches.

Susan Kam, who runs the new service in Copley Square, speaks Chinese and says that her branch offers help in six other languages, including Korean, Japanese, and Russian. (The Harvard Square branch run by Mr. Khakian, an Iranian native who has been in the United States since 1976, offers multilingual banking in at least eight languages.)

"I've had students actually cry when they find out that I speak their language and that I will spend all the time with them that they need to get set up," Ms. Kam says.

Foreign students new in town are "in culture shock anyway," she adds, "and we end up telling them about good restaurants, how to find their way around - almost anything."

Most of the students also need to be shown how to operate an automated teller machine (ATM) and how to manage a checking account.

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"This is a niche market for us," says Robert Ward, head of BayBank's International division.

Other banks in the area do not reach out so much to foreign students. Although these banks can and do provide service to them, language can often be a problem. A source at the American Banker, a trade newspaper based in New York, does not know of programs targeting foreign students in other parts of the US. Large banks in areas with multilingual populations, however, do provide foreign-language assistance, says a spokesman for BankAmerica in California, which offers help in 14 languages, many of them Asian.

BayBank advertises its IPB program in part through a site on the Internet's World Wide Web on the Internet, the global computer network to which many college students have access. The promotion "features a picture of a really messy dorm room, and this brings lots of business," Mr. Ward says.

Some 15 percent of the participants in IPB are businesspeople living in the area who run branches of overseas companies; the other 85 percent are foreign students. Ward estimates that Boston University alone has more than 6,000 foreign students, the highest count in the nation. Northeastern, Harvard, and Tufts Universities and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology all have thousands of foreign students.

The graduate schools of American universities are widely regarded as the best in the world, and they attract a host of foreigners, many of whom come from wealthy families.

BayBank "almost automatically" extends credit to these students if they apply, Ward says, since the bank figures they must have money to be here. They are almost always good customers, he adds.

Baybank's international division also serves multinational corporations and provides foreign-exchange operations for Boston's 700,000 annual tourists and travelers.

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