Feat_conversation group_internationalImagine moving thousands of miles to another country with a language you don’t understand and cultural taboos you don’t yet know. How would you adapt? The Learning Enrichment and College Readiness Department gives those newcomers help through conversation programs.

Students and community members learning English as a second language have two options to practice their speech while meeting others, some of whom are struggling with the same adjustments to the United States. The ESL Friends Circle meets during the week while the ESL Conversation Group is on the weekend.

Started in February 2013, the Friends Circle is a support group for non-native English speakers from the Adult Education program. Participants are typically students enrolled in ESL because the group meets in B260 before their Thursday afternoon class. Sometimes advanced English learners and students from the Citizenship program attend. When non-ESL registered people show up, Nina Shoman-Dajani, manager of Transition and ESL, welcomes them. “It serves as an ‘info session’ about what our program has to offer. They are there because they want to enroll in the ESL program,” she said.

Novices practice their English with each other and sometimes other native speakers. Recently, students from associate professor of Communications and Literature Mike McGuire’s class participated in “getting to know you” activities with the Friends Circle. They partnered with each other, conversed and later introduced one another to the group. On average the group numbers 12 to 15, but has swelled to more than 20.

Students in this group also learn about other cultures and make new friends. Shoman-Dajani leads this unit and has taken them on tours of buildings around campus, explained available student services, exposed them to college diversity events as well as visited the art gallery and Culinary Arts Department.

“The students heard a speech about Martin Luther King Jr. for Black History Month. Although they were from over seven different countries, they had all heard of MLK. It was a good opportunity for me to tell them about the month and how the college celebrates diversity,” she explained. “This Friends Circle provides an opportunity for students to make friends, learn about Moraine Valley and the surrounding community and learn how to navigate U.S. cultural norms. We want them to feel supported, comfortable and part of the college.”

Michael Morsches, dean of Learning Enrichment and College Readiness, heads up the ESL Conversation Group that started in fall 2012 and has grown from five to more than 60 participants. They meet on the weekend for four hours (Sat., 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Sun., noon- 4 p.m.) during the school year and on Saturdays in the summer in B284.

“It’s not a class with tests and homework. It’s a conversation group with lots of activities—individual, small and large group. Students can drop in at any time, but we usually see them stay most of the four hours,” Morsches said. “The students come from a dozen or more countries. They come to check out the viability of other college courses, to find a supportive network or to get conversation practice to supplement their courses.”

The weekend group welcomes currently enrolled ESL and IELP students and those who missed registration but are on the list to register for the next semester. Some students bring family members or friends to participate, and college employees have contributed to the activities.

“The students come from all walks of life and come to the group for many reasons. Some are refugees, some middle class retirees, some testing the American educational waters, some want more conversation practice beyond their coursework, and some cannot attend weekday offerings. Many go on to college courses and certificate programs, including several who have helped us pilot supplemental instruction in medical terminology, BNAT and welding programs. They build a safe, supportive community in the group and gain the confidence to go out and engage in the community,” Morsches added.

“For many of our students who have arrived from regions of conflict, they find comfort in the support and new-found friendships. For students who are here without family, many find their new friends to be more like family. The participants are not only diverse in ethnic background, they also are diverse in age and educational background. Usually at the end of the semester we share cultural dishes with a potluck,” Shoman-Dajani said. “Friendships are built, bonds are made, and it’s like the community college version of the United Nations.”