It goes without saying that many international students at the University of Iowa struggle with two big barriers to full inclusion in the life of the university—language and finding a social group.
Benjamin Hassman is doing something about both, and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and UI International Programs have recognized his excellent work by jointly awarding him the International Engagement Teaching Award.
Hassman, a lecturer in the University of Iowa Department of Rhetoric, has dedicated much of his time at Iowa to developing the UI's Conversation Center, which is housed in Rhetoric. The center is a service-learning program that trains about 30 confident English-speaking students each semester to serve as conversation partners who host English conversations with international students and scholars. The center provides student-staff the tools to both have conversations and to learn from them, incorporating international perspectives into their professional skillset.
One student, a native English speaker who was trained in the Conversation Practicum (co-taught by Hassman) to work in the Conversation Center has found the center to be an important part of their own UI experience, returning subsequent semesters as a Peer Leader who mentors other new undegrads and serves on the center leadership team.
"I have worked with Dr. Hassman and the Conversation Center for about two years and have appreciated each semester," the student explained. "As a student in the Conversation Practicum, the introductory class to working in the Conversation Center, I remember how well Dr. Hassman connected with each student and created a sense of community within our classroom. This environment fostered the honesty and openness needed to effectively develop cultural competency as we explored the international student experience and reflected on our own identities. Rather than view our Conversation Center experiences through a purely academic lens, Dr. Hassman encouraged us to go deeper and forge something more heartfelt. Throughout the course, he made it clear that he was here to support us in any way that we could and urged us to take ownership of our experience by completing weekly reflections and exploring outside of our comfort zone."
Another Peer Leader echoed Hassman's commitment to helping American students learn cultural competency and develop their own sense of agency from their interactions with international students.
"As a peer leader in the Conversation Practicum, a course that introduces students to the Conversation Center and provides training in intercultural communication and cultural humility, my time has been shaped by Ben’s dedication to student leadership and collaboration," the student said. "Ben frequently reaches out to peer leaders to prompt us to reflect on how the Conversation Center affects our perceptions of the university and larger international community. By creating weekly meetings for peer leaders to discuss our thoughts and the feedback we receive from international students, Ben ensures that the Conversation Center is shaped by student perspectives."
A Chinese graduate student credited Hassman’s graduate course, Public Speaking for Academics, and the Conversation Center with helping them develop academically, professionally, and socially within the U.S. higher-education environment.
"From his feedback, I learned how to better communicate with people outside my field," the student said. "I still remember one of his comments—'give the audience a bit more signposting'—which has been used a lot in my further presentations. I am still on the way to boost my presentation skills, so I took the course 'Public Speaking for Academics.' This is a class provided for graduate students who are non-native and native speakers. I learned many tips on how to start a conversation with strangers and how to behave politely in the American culture background. The other design in this course that impressed me a lot is to interview a faculty in my field. This offers me an opportunity to build a connection with a professor and learn how she made public presentations. Besides having a lot of fun, there is no doubt that I also learned new things."
Steve Duck, Professor and chair of the Department of Rhetoric, lauded Hassman's leadership of the Conversation Center and in the UI's broader efforts to increase international engagement. Duck noted that because of his work in developing connections in Japan and China, the center is poised to become involved in recruitment and sustaining of international students in the future.
"Ben has lived out the University’s espousal of cultural diversity and integration of international students, creating something unique, not only at Iowa but nationally," Duck said. "The process actually engages students in talking to one another and experiencing cultural diversity and its hindrances as well as its affordances. Ben provides not only guidance and instruction, but also a sanguine ingenuity in finding activities for the students to use as vehicles for engagement. These inventions have made this project a success and so different from other much more formal methods of encouraging intercultural familiarity."
Hassman earned his PhD in philosophy from the UI in 2011—he is an adjunct instructor in the Department of Philosophy—and joined the Department of Rhetoric faculty in 2015. He serves on the Office of the Provost's Equity and Inclusion in Academic Support Implementation Team, the First Year Student advisory board, the First-Gen Task Force, and the Autism Spectrum Disorder committee. In 2016, he earned the International Advocate certificate from UI International Programs.