Class combines conversations, cultures

8:25:48 AM CDT - Thursday, May 13, 2004

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

It's a Wednesday morning and international students learning to speak English are waiting for Bill Thomas to pair them up with area volunteers who will spend the next two hours helping them hone their speaking skills while showing them some American culture and the Wichita community.

Every Wednesday, Thomas, from the Intensive English Language Center, goes through this ritual for the 56 students in four different conversation class sessions.

He likes this part of the class, when the volunteers, called conversation leaders, and the international students greet each other like old friends and gather around tables, waiting for their pairings and outings.

"It's like a big party," he says. "Everyone is chatting and having fun."
Consersation class
International students Peter Pham, left, Ismael
Tounkara, foreground, and Karim Amadou talk while
conversation leader Judy Kelly looks on.  The students
were waiting to be paired with conversation leaders
who help them hone their English skills.

The conversation class is an important component for international students enrolled in the IELC program, says Thomas. Conversation leaders are either community volunteers or WSU students, who can receive a nominal stipend for volunteering.

While the international students meet during the week for various levels of English-speaking and listening classes, the Wednesday conversation class allows them to practice what they're learning.
In the late 1990s, the conversation classes expanded and underwent a change from students and leaders merely sitting around a table, talking for an hour, to two-hour jaunts on the campus or in the community.

"If you like people from other places, this is the place to be," says 12-year conversation leader veteran Al Bergen, a former educator who led schools in Ethiopia and in Augusta, Kan. Bergen had just returned from an outing at Barnes and Noble bookstore with a student from Myanmar, the former Burma.

For five of the students hailing from Latvia, Mexico, Egypt, Venezuela and Nepal this Wednesday's outing was a picnic in newly renovated Riverside Park. The conversation leaders shared fried chicken and fruit salad, while two of the students had prepared Middle Eastern and Spanish dishes.

Conversation leader Debbie Beat, who organized the picnic, says when she heard about the volunteer opportunity in one of her WSU classes, she thought it would be a great way to travel without going anywhere. While her husband's job in the National Guard takes him to foreign lands, Beat figures she'll learn more about other cultures through the students she works with.

On the ride to the park, Iveta Grunte, who competes in the heptathlon for WSU, admits she didn't pay much attention in her English grammar class back in Latvia, thinking she'd never use it. Until enrolling at WSU, she learned to speak English by listening to American pop music.

Conversation leader Thuy Ngo, who moved to the United States from her native Vietnam as a youngster, understands how hard it is to learn English. She offers Grunte some pointers about sentence structure.

Because she is an immigrant, Ngo says, one of the first questions she asks is why the students chose to study in Wichita.

Ngo, a student at Cowley Community College, started volunteering as a leader a year ago when she was a WSU student.

"I like to meet new people, and they aren't just any new people," she says. "They're from different countries."

How to become a conversation leader

If you have an interest in other cultures and are a good listener, you probably would enjoy being a conversation leader, says Bill Thomas, who coordinates the conversation class offered through the Intensive English Language Center. Classes meet for two hours on Wednesdays, usually starting at 8:30 a.m. and continuing at intervals until 3:30 p.m.

To volunteer, contact Thomas at 978-3232 or william.thomas@wichita.edu.

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