University of Iowa

Talking across perceived borders at the UI

November 29th, 2016
Photo by Benjamin Hassman

Photo by Benjamin Hassman

By Isabella Senno, The Daily Iowan 

Small talk can have a big impact.

The Conversation Center began last spring as a peer-based program meant to strengthen the relationship between international and domestic students through casual conversations in English about anything from hobbies to homesickness. Half a year later, it has flourished, with 1,425 sessions and counting, for a total of 827.5 hours of conversation.

“We have a very high retention rate,” said University of Iowa junior Valerie Drake, a conversation partner. “In my experience, I talked to some of the same partners for the whole 10 weeks.”

Built by students to help students, the center offers two distinct services, an Intercultural Social Hour held on the first Tuesday of every month and one-on-one appointments available for 10 weeks every semester with conversation partners, fellow students who are fluent in English.

“Those individual conversations in the pairing program are the heart and soul of things,” said Conversation Center Director Benjamin Hassman. “A lot of what we see is students that come back over and over again because they see genuine value in the conversations that they’ve had. Part of what we’re trying to do is make sure that both undergraduates and international students have a forum to have the sorts of conversations that each of them see as valuable but in a lot of cases difficult to start.”

The number of students who use the pairing program has risen by about 25 percent from the approximately 80 students who participated last spring to the 100 students who have attended their appointments so far this fall. Around 73 percent of students in the fall semester returned for an appointment, and 30 percent returned nine or more times over the course of 10 weeks.

“It’s a very popular service, and it’s really fun,” Drake said. “We get a huge array of students, all ages, all genders, all nationalities. Some days, I would talk to people from six different countries.”

Positive statistics for the center are up slightly from last spring, usually rising by one-half of a percent or 1 percent in terms of ratings for excellency, recommendation, and probability of return visits.

UI sophomore Akshaya Warrier, a cofounder of the Conversation Center, said she and her peers who started the center had a goal of bridging the diversity gap on campus.

“It started out as this observation that international students tended to cling to each other rather than interacting with domestic students,” she said. “When we talked to international students, we realized that a lot of it was insecurities about their conversational skills.”

Currently, the Conversation Center has 13 conversation partners this semester and 14 currently signed up to take over during the spring semester. Hassman said it is possible that the number of partners will continue to grow in the future as the program expands and past partners return to volunteer.

“We’ve see the enrollment hover around 90 percent every week, both last spring and this fall, even through scheduling fluctuations,” Hassman said. “It shows the demand is there for the services we’re offering, and it shows that perhaps we haven’t hit the top level of what the university campus would really be interested in seeing.”

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