Conversation Circles works to connect international, US students

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Mikail Bashir, who is from Nigeria, and Adjunct Faculty Laura Day discuss the differences in climate between the U.S. and Nigeria during Conversation Circles. Photo by Mercadees Hempel

Mikail Bashir, who is from Nigeria, and Adjunct Faculty Laura Day discuss the differences in climate between the U.S. and Nigeria during Conversation Circles. Photo by Mercadees Hempel

Out of the 5,400 students who attend the campus at the University of Indianapolis, 9 percent of the undergraduates and 8 percent of the graduates are international students, according to the Fast Facts about UIndy page on UIndy’s official website. Despite the numbers, Associate Director of the Writing Lab Dawn Hershberger noticed a couple of trends while observing the international students when she was a teacher and when she worked in the Writing Lab.

Hershberger said that she noticed the international students would stick with other international students from similar countries. And when she was teaching, the students were more shy about speaking up in class, even if they were doing well in the class academically. After attending several conferences, Hershberger heard about Conversation Circles and thought that was a great idea.

Conversation Circles is a program started by Hershberger and the Writing Lab in which international students meet with native English speaking facilitators, who are also UIndy students and tutors in the Writing Lab. The groups meet in the Writing Lab, in the Schwitzer Student Center or in other locations that they decide upon. Once they are together, the facilitators will lead conversations among all of the participants about whatever subject they choose. The setting is meant to be very relaxed and not a class, according to Hershberger, with the goal being for the international students to practice their English skills and become comfortable with the language in a casual and non-judgmental environment.

“They [the facilitators] help dictate what to talk about,”  Hershberger said. “So they really are there just to be facilitators, to keep the conversation going, not to overrun it or dominate it. Our hope is that the international students that are in attendance will do the majority of the conversing.”

The program was started last fall semester, according to Hershberger, so this will be the second year for the program. Hershberger said that the University of Michigan, which has a very successful Conversation Circles program, provided a lot of materials for the training and preparation. To spread the word about Conversation Circles this year, the facilitators spoke at the international students’ orientation and in a few classes as well. The facilitators also visited Internexus, an English Education Network near UIndy, that teaches English as a second language. Hershberger said that last year, students from Internexus showed up at the Conversation Circles as well, and she hopes that will be the case again this year.

Conversation Circles kicked off on Sept. 12.  Although 150 students expressed interest in the program, Hershberger said only a few have shown up.  She hopes to get the word out about the Conversation Circles programing and is planning to meet with the Multicultural Engagement and Global Awareness Center about spreading the information.

There are six Conversation Circles being offered this semester. Two of them are weekly. The first meets on Wednesdays at 4 p.m., and the other meets on Sundays at 6 p.m. The biweekly Conversation Circle meets on Tuesdays at 5 p.m.

Finally, there are three weekly drop-in Conversation Circles held in the Writing Lab Conference Room in the Krannert Memorial Library. The drop-in times are on Tuesdays at 7 p.m., Wednesdays at 5 p.m. and Fridays at 1 p.m.

Hershberger said that it is open to U.S. and international students,  and if anyone is interested in signing up for the weekly or biweekly circles, all he or she has to do is email Hershburger directly or sign up with a Doodle link which can be found on The Reflector website. Signing up for the drop-in times is not necessary; students only have to show up.

While the turnout has not been as large as Hershberger would like, she said that last year, the participants and the facilitators had a lot of fun. For example, one international student had the circle meet in her dorm, and she taught them how to make dumplings.  One circle wanted to know more about the services on campus, so the facilitator took them around campus and showed them what offices and programs are offered.  Another circle spent its hour looking up the members favorite music and making comparisons.

“What I’d really like to drive home is that mainly for the international students to know that this really is there for them,” Hershberger said, “that it’s something we would very much like to see them mold into whatever they find most useful…. It’s there to help give them confidence, to help them learn and also to help us learn from them, to have some intercultural exchange both ways, not just us feeding them American culture.”

Junior history and education major Mary Anne Schneider was a facilitator last year and decided to be a facilitator again this year. She said that last year was a lot of fun working with Conversation Circles,  and she and the circle would talk about social media, apps, school and other relevant topics. At first, Schneider said that she was nervous, but she is happy she signed up for the program because she wanted to improve her intercultural communication and meet more people.

Last year, Schneider facilitated a circle on a biweekly basis. This  year, she facilitates the drop-in circle on Friday at 1 p.m. She said that she had a lot of fun learning about the students’ lives in their home countries, and that one week they visited a traditional Indian restaurant. The next time they met, they went to a traditional American restaurant. Schneider said not only was it a great time and educational, but she gained communication skills as well.

“The ultimate goal is for them to improve their English speaking skills,” Schneider said. “I feel like a big thing is small talk, and like the same thing that is benefiting me is benefiting them, like just being able to talk to someone with a different background as you but being able to keep up a conversation….  I just feel like I want them [the international students] to get a sense that they have friends that they can come talk to that are different from the people they usually hang out with, people they wouldn’t normally associate with, and learn different things because everybody has their own biases.”

Hershberger said that she hopes that the international students who participate will feel more comfortable and closer to the campus.

“We just want them to feel more at home here….  I just really want people to be aware that it [the Conversation Circles] is here,” she said. “And that it’s not a class, it’s a fun thing. It’s meant to be a place where you can meet friends and laugh and enjoy yourselves and learn from each other.”

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