Unique UI rhetoric program aims to help improve English skills and build cultural awareness
Tuesday, December 12, 2017

What can happen when a University of Iowa student identifies an opportunity for change on campus? If that student is passionate about the idea and recruits the help of peers and faculty who share that vision, a whole lot.

Conversation Center

A place where undergraduates can build confidence in their English and cultural fluency through informal one-on-one conversations.

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In the fall of 2014, first-year Hawkeyes in a President’s Leadership Class were asked to think about gaps they saw on campus. Mingfeng Huang, who is now a senior majoring in finance and mathematics, saw a division among students who identified as international and those who identified as domestic. He wanted to find ways to remove barriers that prevented international students from feeling confident in fully participating in campus and community life. Several of Huang’s classmates agreed, as did the Department of Rhetoric.

Huang, who is from China, spent three years in the United States in high school before starting at the UI. He says he noticed international students on campus struggled to make friends with native English speakers.

“They didn’t have the advantage I had living with an American family,” Huang says. “Even if I just talked with them 30 minutes each day at the dinner table, that consistency helped tremendously.”

Two years after that President’s Leadership Class, the Conversation Center began hosting one-on-one and small-group conversations between international students and confident English speakers. Faculty also developed a class to train confident English speakers to facilitate such interactions. The class is now part of the minor in rhetoric and persuasion, a testament to the flow of ideas from the president to a student to a faculty member to a departmental curriculum and the greater community.

Since its start in spring 2016, 81 confident English speakers have had 3,075 conversations over 1,861 hours with 462 students who want to improve their English; make friends; and learn more about the culture on campus, in Iowa City, and in the wider United States. In fall 2017, the Conversation Center partnered with the Friendship Community Project, a local nonprofit group, to expand the conversations to include local residents.

“It shows what students can do when told ‘yes,’” says Ben Hassman, director of the Conversation Center and a lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric who helped to develop the project. “Students can, at the University of Iowa, spot a gap, make a difference, build something, and leave something real behind. That’s big.”

Video by Jasmine Putney.

Hassman says he doesn’t know of any Conversation Centers at other universities that stress the experiential learning and leadership opportunities that the rhetoric department helps bring about. While the initial idea came from a group effort, with students from many disciplines working with faculty to make it a reality, the emphasis on service-learning is unique.

“We were all taking the same class and became really good friends,” says Huang’s classmate Akshaya Warrier, now a senior studying microbiology and human physiology who moved between India and Bettendorf, Iowa, while growing up. “We all had an interest in changing the diversity status on campus and making a difference in the barriers that we see.”

Another student says he knows first-hand how difficult it can be for international students on campus.

“I had just come back from short-term overseas mission to Korea,” says Jonathan Chang, a senior human physiology major from Elk Grove Village, Illinois. “I was in the place where I’m from ethnically, but I felt like an outsider because I don’t speak Korean.”

The group first spent time researching similar current and past programs on campus. They decided that what was missing was a space for a student who is not comfortable with their English skills or with American culture to come and have regular low-key, one-on-one conversation with a confident English speaker.

Huang says he wanted to mimic the Writing Center’s enrollment program, in which students reserve a spot to meet with the same person every week to get help with specific writing projects or to just improve their writing skills in general.

The group found a faculty partner in former rhetoric lecturer Lauren Cameron and worked with College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Administrator Kathy Hall, who encouraged and supported the students’ collaboration with the Department of Rhetoric and facilitated a brainstorming session about what would best serve students’ needs from a variety of perspectives.

The first Conversation Practicum was held in spring 2016. The first three weeks of the practicum are spent studying informal communication and talking with members of groups such as the Speaking Center, International Program, and ESL programs. Hassman, who took over for Cameron when she left the UI, says conversation requires more than a solid grasp of language and grammar, so the class also plays games that demonstrate the influence of cultural and social cues on conversation.

During the last 10 weeks of class, students spend at least three hours a week with “conversation seekers.” Appointments can be made for any of the approximately 90 hours of conversation time slots available during the week, and the student pairs meet mostly in libraries around campus.

Hassman says while students in the Conversation Practicum come from diverse majors, the common thread is a desire to build intercultural communication skills and make campus an easier place to engage with people from diverse backgrounds.

“Millennials get this tag as people who are stuck in their phones and don’t know how to talk with other people,” Hassman says. “This is a really concrete example of students actively building their social skills one-on-one in order to simply engage with people—and not just people who are like them, but people from diverse backgrounds and of diverse ages.”

Jui-Kai “Ray” Wang, a UI assistant research scientist and engineer from Taiwan who received his PhD from the UI, has been talking with students from the Conversation Center since its inception. He says he enjoys making new friends from different backgrounds and majors and appreciates how flexible and relaxing the conversations are.

“One reason I want to practice my English is one day I want to be a professor, and I want to deliver my ideas in a more friendly way, not always technical,” Wang says. “I want to learn how people here think, and when they talk, what kind of logic they really like.”

Conversation Center by the numbers

Spring 2016 through November 2017:

3,075 conversation sessions
1,861 hours of conversation
462 conversation seekers
81 confident English speakers hosting conversations

International students aren’t the only ones who benefit from these conversations. The confident English speakers say it gives them a chance to study abroad without leaving the country. Jane Tien Thuy Ngyuen, a biochemistry major for Sioux City, Iowa, who was part of the group that started the program, says she was not able to travel growing up and, as an aspiring medical student focused on school, she doesn’t have time to study abroad.

“Being able to sit there and hear stories and talk about the lifestyles of Korea, China, all those different places, it meant a lot to me,” Ngyuen says. “It was like I was traveling while sitting in one place. It was a life-changing experience.”

There are no guidelines about what should be discussed during the conversations, and the topics can be wide-ranging.

“Some people want to work on pronunciation and grammar, while others want to learn about the culture,” says Sylvia Dean, a UI senior linguistics major from Iowa City, Iowa. “I’ve had conversations that started with us talking about what we had for breakfast and ended discussing elder care in China.”

Dean, who took the Conversation Practicum in spring 2017 and returned in fall 2017 as a mentor to the new students, also volunteers as an English teacher for the Friendship Community Project, a nonprofit that works with adult immigrants in the Iowa City area. She suggested that Hassman contact her mother, Susan Prepejchal, the director of the organization. A conversation over coffee led to a series of community conversation events.

conversation center participants
Tom Bowman, a Conversation Practicum student, participates in a conversation session. Since its start in spring 2016, 81 confident English speakers have had 3,075 conversations over 1,861 hours with 462 students who want to improve their English; make friends; and learn more about the culture on campus, in Iowa City, and in the wider United States. Photo by Justin Torner.

Prepejchal says about 15 residents have attended each of the community conversations held at the Iowa City Public Library and Merge, and because about the same number of students from the Conversation Center have been present, many of the conversations have been one-on-one or in small groups.

“The residents are excited about the concept of one-on-one because they can be intimidated by someone whom they think speaks better English than they do, or maybe they won’t speak up in a group or class,” Prepejchal says. “Especially some of the people who are really new to English wouldn’t dream of trying a larger conversation group. But if you tell them they can be one-on-one, they feel a little braver.”

Prepejchal says that along with practicing English, the conversations help residents feel less isolated within the community and provide a chance to make friends. Livia Centeno, who moved to the U.S. from Venezuela six years ago, and Shanina Rodriguez, who moved from Columbia eight years ago, say the community conversation events are relaxed and have given them more confidence in their English skills.

The students who worked to start the Conversation Center say they are proud of what it has become and how it has affected so many students’ lives—including their own.

“The biggest thing about leaving it behind, it makes me feel like I’m still in Iowa,” Warrier says. “It’s part of me. There’s a little bit of me left in this town, because wherever I go, I’ll carry this town with me. That’s a mutual relationship. I leave a little bit of me and I take a little with me.”

As for Huang, he counts the experience of developing the Conversation Center as the best he’s had while at the UI, particularly doing it with friends who were as passionate about the project as he is.

“We want to be here to study,” Huang says, “but we have received so much from the university and we want to give back as well.”

conversation center participants
Peer leader Sylvia Dean makes conversation during a November session. In fall 2017, the Conversation Center partnered with the Friendship Community Project, a local nonprofit group, to expand the conversations to include local residents. Photo by Justin Torner.