Small talk, big impact: The University of Iowa’s Conversation Center

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Two UI students during a Conversation Center session. — photo courtesy of the Conversation Center

Sometimes small talk isn’t such a small thing. For international students at the University of Iowa, lack of confidence in their ability to speak English in everyday situations can lead to feelings of isolation. That’s where the Conversation Center comes in.

The Conversation Center matches UI undergraduates who are confident English speakers with international students looking to improve their conversational English. The program is based in the Department of Rhetoric, and is part of a service-learning course called Conversation Practicum, which was first taught in the 2016 spring semester. But the idea for the center actually grew out of a different course, the President’s Leadership Class.

“During this class we were taught to strive to make a difference on campus,” said UI senior Jane Nguyen, one of the student founders of the Conversation Center. It was during this class that the idea of the center first developed — naturally enough — during conversations between students. Those conversations continued after the course was over.

“For nine months, we met up once a week for an hour, and talked about problems that we saw,” Nguyen, a biochemistry major from western Iowa, recalled. One of the obvious problems, highlighted by international students in the group, was the difficulties and discomfort that non-native English speakers feel when they lack confidence in their conversational English.

But after coming up the idea for the center, the students had a hard time finding a home for it on campus.

“We originally pitched the idea to people associated with international programs that are trying to bridge the gap between international students and the wider community. They said they already had similar programs,” Nguyen said. “The most interesting part is that every time they would say that, then they would say those programs aren’t having as much success as people hoped.”

“To me, a big reason the Conversation Center is successful is that it’s a peer-to-peer program,” said Benjamin Hassman, a lecturer in the Rhetoric Department and director of the Conversation Center. “These students are able to engage with each other much more easily, because they are peers. They’re not dealing with a teacher, they’re not dealing with a grad student. They’re dealing with someone who is just like them. Someone who is engaging in similar types of social problems, similar types of educational problems, and who can talk about dealing with those problems.”

“In our first two years, we’ve seen approximately 450 international students, which is about 10 percent of the population here on campus. We’ve hosted about 3,100 individual sessions.”

The sessions are either one-on-one conversations or small group meetings. The international students get to improve their English, but Nguyen said students like her also gain something from the conversations.

“I know for me personally, it’s really meant a lot sitting in those conversations with people from different cultures and countries, because I come from a low-income background and I’ve never really been able to travel outside Iowa,” Nguyen said. “So, for me it’s really valuable to be able to learn about experiences from outside Iowa in one sitting.”

For Nguyen, one of the most important things the center offers to international students is consistency. “We provide a constant opportunity for conversational practice, and the center offers a constant level of support,” she said.

The Conversation Center is currently raising money using GOLDrush, UI’s crowdfunding site, to help ensure the continuation of that consistency.

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“We rely on student volunteers,” Hassman said. “And this will help us develop our peer-leader program, with students who have gone through Conversation Practicum comes back to mentor students currently taking the course.”

“It will also help do things like make sure there are cups of coffee available during sessions,” he added. “It’s a little thing, but it helps.”

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