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Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 20, 2018

Serving up enticing discussion at the International Conversation Cafe

IW international students build English proficiency through conversation
Dec 29, 2017
Photo by: Karyn Spory Pachalo Mkandawire, left, an Iowa Wesleyan University student from Maui, and Paula Sanders, right, an IW alum, listens intently as one of their group members speaks at the International Conversation Cafe. The Cafe is part of the university’s ESL (English as a Second Language) program, which helps international students with their conversational and academic English.

By Karyn Spory, Mt. Pleasant News


The Tiger Den at Iowa Wesleyan University’s Howell Student Building sits silent as students soak up the remainder of their winter break, but every other Thursday night during the semester the alcove is a buzz as the den is turned into the International Conversation Cafe.

The International Conversation Cafe brings community members, Iowa Wesleyan faculty and staff and domestic students together with international students to have a conversation. The program was started by David Schmitz, an assistant professor and Director of ESL (English as a second Language). “For the first time ever here at Iowa Wesleyan we have started an intensive English program. It’s basically to help international students whose English proficiency doesn’t quite meet the university’s admission requirements,” Schmitz said. “Our job is to serve as a way to get them ready.” The ESL program currently has eight students from three different countries — Mongolia, Spain and Bolivia.

The International Conversation Cafe is an extension of the intensive English program. The cafe serves a dual purpose, Schmitz explains. It allows international students to practice their conversation skills, but it also builds bridges between students, the community and the different cultures.

“We’ve had a really nice turnout this semester,” Schmitz said, adding the cafe sees around 25 people. “We meet biweekly for about an hour. Students are provided sort of a structured set of conversation questions. After 20-30 minutes of discussion, we break into groups to play different board games or card games people have brought. There are also snacks and desserts to make it a nice environment.”

The cafe is open at 7 p.m. every other Thursday during the semester. The den features a couch and sitting chairs on a platform near the back of the room, while the majority of the space is filled with round tables. At the center of each table is a single sheet of paper. The paper contains this week’s conversation topic and a list of questions to help generate the conversation. On this particular Thursday before break, the topic was “change.”

“Are you someone who likes change?” one of the questions asks.

As the students and community members trickle in, Schmitz gives each individual a number between one and three. He then assigns each table a number and the groups for the evening join together.

“We’ve had a really solid group of participants from the community and domestic students. It’s been really nice,” Schmitz added.

As the conversations begin, there is spontaneous laughter from one table, at the second table, the group sits, their brows furrowed as they tackle the next question. Each group member listens intently as their peer answers the question before them, describing how their past experiences and culture has shaped their response.

Ady Uzokwe, a sophomore from Chicago, says she sees how the cafe helps to build those bridges. “We find commonalities while we’re talking,” she said. “It’s not about age or nationality.”

Uzokwe is a volunteer in the international program and says the conversation cafe is a great way to unwind after class. “We come and sit down and distract ourselves from school work.” Uzokwe says she enjoys the conversations because it’s more than just small talk. “It’s not like ‘have you watched this latest movie or music video,’” she said. “(Our conversations) have substance.”

Pachalo Mkandawire, a sophomore from Maui, said she wanted to join the conversation for several reasons. “The interaction helps me improve my English speaking skills,” she said. “I get exposed to it not just by conversation, but by observing. I also get to know a lot of people.”

Once the group wrapped up their structured conversations, the evening becomes a game night. A silver tote sits in the corner of the den, piled high with board games. A member of each group comes up to select a game for their table. As the cards are dealt and the die rolled, conversation quickly begins again.

“We’re just getting off to a start here,” said Schmitz who hopes to expand the program in the future.

But for right now, he’s focused on fortifying the bridges they’ve built over the course of the past semester. “Our wider goal is just to share one another’s culture and perspectives and to learn from one another,” he said. “I just really want to provide an environment where we can relax, have fun, get to know each other and build relationships across cultures.”

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