English learners get chances to branch out

By Rachel Small

Kimberly Bang takes 20 hours of English classes each week, but when she lived in temporary housing, she did not have to speak much English outside of the classroom: both of her roommates spoke Korean as well.

The University’s Intensive English Institute attracts students from around the world to improve their English skills while immersing themselves in American culture. While some students step outside their comfort zone and take advantage of the opportunities the Institute offers, others retreat to the familiarity of their own cultures.

“You could go to class for 20 hours a week and, if you try hard, not speak English the rest of the time,” said Anna Kasten, faculty member and student services coordinator for the institute. “I think it can really happen both ways.”

Kasten said that while the institute offers various opportunities for its students to branch out, it is up to the students to take the initiative.

“There’s so much for them to do here, that if they don’t take advantage of that, it’s really their loss,” Kasten said.

The institute organizes volunteer opportunities for its students, such as helping with Special Olympics and playing bingo with nursing home residents.

“They’re helping people, and in the process they’re learning as well,” Kasten said.

The institute also offers a weekly program called ConvoPartners, which matches institute students up with volunteers from the University.

“I try to actually match everybody by age and interests, what they’re studying and what they like to do in their free time,” said Megan Ficek, institute faculty member and ConvoPartners coordinator. “I work with what I have and try to find people who will hit it off.”

Bang said she finds the ConvoPartners program helpful.

Ficek said that while her system is not perfect, it does give the institute’s students a chance to connect with native English speakers.

Non-native speakers can also take advantage of other programs on campus, such as coffee hours, which offer them a chance to practice their English skills.

Mary Stewart, freshman in General Studies, said she enjoys talking to institute students through one of her courses on English as an international language.

“I want the international students to feel accepted and not excluded from other students and know that we care about them,” Stewart said. “When I asked one of the Korean students in this class if she felt accepted, or if she had gotten involved in any student organizations, she said she had her own Korean and international friends. I think that’s great, but I hope she feels accepted at this University.”

Language can pose as a barrier between institute students and other students on campus.

“Most students want to be with Americans, but there is a problem with language,” Bang said. “They want to be, but there are not many opportunities, so they just stay with Koreans.

Bang lived in temporary housing at Illinois Street Residence before being switched to her permanent room in Lincoln Avenue Residence. At ISR, she had two Korean roommates, both institute students as well.

“When I lived with Koreans, we always talked in Korean, so we could not improve our English,” Bang said. “But it can be convenient, comfortable.”

She said her roommates would sometimes try to converse in English, but would usually end up switching back when at a loss for English words.

Students from countries that are strongly represented at the University are less likely to branch out, said Kasten. Asians, especially Koreans, constitute a substantial portion of the institute’s students.

“If you’re the only student from Mongolia, then you are going to speak English all the time,” Kasten said.

She said that she is encouraged when she sees students taking an opportunity to connect with native English speakers.

“When we see that, we love that, because they’re inspirational to the other students,” Kasten said.