Cultural Conversations: Center promotes interconnected student body

Tucked away in the depths of the Main Library, you can sometimes find students meeting to have engaging conversations. These students, however, aren’t quizzing each other for an upcoming exam or taking a study break for a light chat. They are students broadening their communication skills while simultaneously breaking down cultural barriers.

Conversation Pairing Program brings students together.
Photo by Benjamin Hassman

Founded in spring 2016, the Conversation Center (CC) is a peer-based English conversation program that aims to build intercultural connections through informal conversations between international and domestic students.

The idea was spurred by an inspired group of students in a leadership course who noticed tension and distance between domestic and international populations on campus and wanted a practical way to build intercultural connections. Mingfeng Huang, a junior studying finance and mathematics, started sharing with other students in the class about the underlying communication problems he saw on campus and his desire to find a solution.

“I am an international student who had a difficult time adjusting to language changes at first,” he said. “I wished there had been a person that could help me out with the language transition.”

Since his first year at Iowa, Huang has been enrolled in weekly appointments at the Writing Center and said it has been immensely helpful in both improving his writing skills and making friends with other students. His experience with the Writing Center inspired him to create a similar model to help break down communication barriers on campus.

“I immediately became invested in the project,” said Akshaya Warrier, a junior studying microbiology and human physiology and one of the student founders of the CC. “I've been in similar situations and I understand what it feels like to move to a new country and feel the culture shock. Not only did I empathize with the international students for their insecurities, but I experienced them.”

And so, Huang and Warrier, along with the rest of the undergraduate leadership team – Abigail Miller, Jane Thuy Tien Nguyen, and Jonathan Chang – set out to establish the CC. They started developing the idea further, recruiting other students, either personally or through visiting campus groups, and figuring out logistics.

“The IC Leaders (the undergraduate student leadership team) are the heart of our peer-support mission,” said CC Director Ben Hassman. “Not only did they develop the initial idea and help implement it, but they remain vital in our ongoing efforts, both long-term and day-to-day.”

The CC currently supports two programs: the Conversation Pairing Program, weekly one-on-one meetings between international students and confident English speakers, and the Intercultural Social Hour, a monthly group conversation with volunteers from all across campus. During the 2016 spring and summer semesters, the CC’s student conversation partners numbered 33. There were 811 total sessions in the spring and 77 in the summer. By early November of the fall 2016 semester, they already had over 400 conversation appointments.

Conversation Pairing Program brings students together.
Photo by Benjamin Hassman

“After a seminal year abroad of my own, I sometimes talk about our practicum as Study-Abroad-At-Home, as it presents our students with the intercultural experience to learn about themselves and grow as academics and as citizens of the world,” Hassman said. “Seeing this process play out is seeing how cultural humility and cross-contextual communication manifest in our student body. In one sense, it’s seeing them become more confident, more conscientious: it’s seeing them become leaders.”

Although the IC leaders come from different backgrounds and experiences, they all see the center’s tremendous value and the impact it can have, both on them and the participating students.

“I enjoy working with bright leaders who want to make the university a safer place,” said Jane Thuy Tien Nguyen, a junior studying biochemistry. “The team that I work with are people who are so diverse and people I admire the most. My experiences with a non-English speaker makes me feel like a hero. They express gratitude and show their support through active participation and it makes me know that we are affecting their lives for the better.”

As far as the future of the CC, the group has high hopes to continue building stronger connections across campus through the art of conversation.

“[We hope] to build an interconnected student body,” Hassman said. “To provide a forum for the development of challenging and meaningful intercultural relationships. To realize the potential that lies within the diversity of our student body for transformative personal and academic experiences at the University of Iowa.”

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