A taste of culture—IEI students share food and experiences

Peering into the window of someone else’s culture gives an invaluable taste of a person’s context and background. Last week, students got a taste of their classmates’ cultures quite literally as we shared dishes from all over the world at the IEI potluck. From Japanese Sukiyaki and Udon noodles to traditional Taiwanese Three-Cup Chicken, our students had an eye-opening meal that provoked conversation and gave a glimpse of what each of their classmates brought to the table.

potluck IEI 4
Students, ConvoPartners, IEI interns and teachers gather over delicious food and delightful conversation at the IEI Potluck.

Aurianny Angulo, a new student this semester, made one of her favorite desserts to highlight her Brazilian heritage. The round, chocolate spheres, called brigadeiro, are a common treat in her home country. The simplicity of the dish and the novelty to her friends made it an easy choice for her to make, she said. Also, Aurianny mentioned that no party in Brazil is complete without this tasty sweet, so she couldn’t resist bringing it to the IEI either.

potluck IEI 2
Aurianny shows off her Brazilian Brigadeiros.

“It is a common dessert in parties…it’s strange to go to a party where these aren’t there,” she said.

Another student, Maureen Riquelme Vásquez, said she also chose her dish because it was common, yet so unique to her region of the world. Maureen is from Chile and one of her favorite foods from home are sopaipillas, which are a type of fried dough that she paired with pico de gallo, a type of salsa.

Maureen said this food reminded her of home because anyone can easily get them in Chile since they are so versatile and delicious. From street vendors, to food stands, sopaipillas are a staple food all over her home country. However, she said her favorite time to eat them is at home during the winter or on a rainy day. For the potluck, Maureen turned the event into a family affair.

“I chose to bring sopaipillas because my aunt offered to make them. I’m not very good at that,” she said. Maureen even brought her nine-year-old nephew, Sergio, to join in on the fun at the IEI. She didn’t want him to miss out on the opportunity to try new foods and experience the cultural dishes of her friends.

potluck IEI 3
Elsayed and Cheikhani, Fulbright Scholars from Egypt and Mauritania, contemplate which dessert to try next.

Even those who didn’t make foods from their home countries enjoyed their time at the potluck. Daniel Romero Jimenez, from Colombia, came because IEI events are opportunities where students from every class at the institute are able to come together to get to know each other better.

He said, “The food was a good part that night, but what I really enjoyed was talking with other students and ConvoPartners.”

potluck IEI 5
Yuki, from Japan, teaches Daniel and Mustafa, from Colombia and Turkey, how to use chopsticks.

This chance to interact with people from all over the world is what makes the IEI a truly unique place to study. Participating in activities like the potluck, are chances to look into the window of diversity around them.

“In these months, in this semester, I am sharing a lot of experiences with my friends, so it is good to know about what they eat and where they come from,” Aurianny said.

With activities and opportunities to get to know people from all over the world, the IEI gives an unforgettable taste of a cross-cultural experience that extends far beyond the classroom.

pot luck IEI 1
A sampling of the delectable desserts prepared by IEI students and teachers.

Written by IEI Intern Maria Rubin De Celis

What Are You Thankful For?

Thanksgiving is one of the most popular holidays in the United States. Typically you can find families and friends getting together to spend time with one another, and eat a wonderful feast together. During Thanksgiving, many people reflect on what is most important in their lives and what things they are most thankful for.

With Thanksgiving next week, IEI students and interns spent some time reflecting on their own lives. They thought about what they’re grateful for this holiday season and it turns out, there’s a lot to give thanks for:

Najah (student from Saudi Arabia): “My family is important. I will visit my family and we will eat dinner together.”

Yernar (student from Kazakhstan): “I’m thankful about the chance that my government gave me to get an education abroad. For example, right now I’m studying at the IEI to enhance my English language skills…it makes me very thankful and very happy because not all the people in my country can take this kind of chance.”
Taghreed (student from Saudi Arabia): “I’m thankful for Allah because he gives me what I need. I’m thankful for all the IEI teachers because they help me to improve my English. Also, I’m thankful for my parents because they support me.”
Moon (student from Korea): “Visiting my uncle and cousin. For me, this is my last semester, so my uncle said they would have a party for me.”
Maureen (student from Chile): “I’m really thankful for the security that my parents have given me to do everything that I want to do. They are a big support for my brothers and me.”
Aaron (student from Korea): “I’m thankful for my having my family.”
Juan (IEI intern): “I’m thankful for my family, friends, and dogs.”

Written by IEI Intern, Maria Rubin De Celis

Cooking Up New Experiences

There’s always something special and fulfilling about spending time with someone whose background is different than your own. The cross-cultural experience allows for new perspectives and understanding, more than anything anyone could learn from a classroom. This past week through the ConvoPartners Program at the Intensive English Institute, I got a taste of this unique learning opportunity—both literally and figuratively.

The ConvoPartners Program is a semester-long activity the IEI arranges so international students have a chance to pair up with residents of the Champaign-Urbana area on a weekly basis. It helps students practice their English, and allows both partners to learn a bit more about each other and their cultures. My ConvoPartner, Renata, and I had an exceptionally fun evening this past week, cooking and sharing stories from our different backgrounds.

Renata Zakirova is a first-year IEI student from Russia. She surprised me in our regular weekly meet-up by telling me that we were going to make one of her favorite dishes—Russian meat dumplings. I was so eager to learn a little more about Russian cuisine, and hang out with her in the process.

From the moment I arrived at her apartment, Renata was so hospitable—even giving me a cute hedgehog apron and slippers so that I would be comfortable. I felt at home in her company even before we started cooking the homemade meal.

Renata began by showing me how to roll the dough for the dumplings from scratch. Sometimes in American culture, we tend to like things that can be done quickly and instantly. The fact that we were starting from the bare basics even for the dumpling dough was rare for me, and from the start I knew the experience would be one to remember!

After kneading the dough, Renata showed me how to make a lemon cake for dessert so we would have something to do while the dough was resting. As I mixed the batter, the tangy smell of fresh lemons reminded me of home, and I was able to share a little bit about my home cooking background.


We started assembling the dumplings after the dough had fully rested, and combined a mixture of ground pork and beef for the filling. Renata showed me how to put the dumplings together, looking like a potter as she carefully crafted each one. Slowly, one by one, we pinched the dumplings to perfection and they were finally assembled. We then put them in the water to boil, and as they cooked, I got to hear a little bit more about Renata’s story.



Renata said that she and her family used to make these dumplings at home. Her mother and grandmother did everything from scratch, including grinding up the meat. Between stories about her brothers growing up and what primary school was like, I gained a deeper insight into Renata’s story. Her openness encouraged me to tell mine as well, and we had a great time laughing sharing old memories from our pasts. Renata and I got lost in good conversation, and we had to remind ourselves to check on the food to make sure nothing would overcook.


Thankfully, we managed to get everything out of the oven and off the stovetop right on time. After adorning the table with berries, salads, and sauces, it was finally time to eat! The minute I bit into the homemade dumplings, I was so pleased and proud that we made such a great dish. Then, after dinner and dessert, Renata and I finished up with a customary tea party. For over an hour we sat, building memories and friendship over a comforting mug of Russian tea.



Finally, it was time for me to leave, and I left the slippers and cozy atmosphere reluctantly. It was wonderful getting to know each other better while building a new friendship. When I got back to my dorm, I realized that the meal we shared and made together was delightful…but the company we shared was even better.

Written by IEI intern, Maria Rubin De Celis

IEI Students Balance Family Life Here and Abroad

Studying in a foreign country can bring all sorts of complications and nerves when students first arrive in the United States. Getting used to American culture and schooling is stressful for anyone; but for some, there’s an added responsibility to think about—children.

Xia Zou, a new IEI student from China, says there were a lot of factors to consider when bringing her three-year-old daughter, Xinning, to the United States. She and her husband, who is a graduate student at the University, had to figure out how to balance their time to take care of their daughter as well as study.

“On the first day of orientation, on the form we used to tell teachers which classes we wanted to take, I didn’t want to take classes after two o’clock because I needed to pick my daughter up,” Xia said.

Scheduling time is just one aspect of acclimating to a new life in America. Xia’s daughter had to adjust to going to American school for the first time, too. Xinning started preschool in August and was scared to go at first. Now, preschool is something she looks forward to each day.

“Every morning she says, ‘I need to go to preschool! Hurry please, I need to go to preschool!,’” Xia said with a chuckle.

Xia’s daughter, Xinning is enjoying life in America so far since she started preschool this semester. She and her mom are learning everyday!

Xinning is learning English at school too, and is even teaching her parents vocabulary of her own. Xia says that although it’s slightly more difficult to juggle everything, overall it is very worth it.

Aigerim Sofiyeva, an IEI student from Kazakhstan, agrees with Xia about juggling life as a student and a parent with her one-year-old son Alinur. She says her husband is also a graduate student at the U of I, so it’s not easy at times; however, having her mother-in-law around to help out during the school week gives her a little break.

“My everyday routine starts at 9:00 a.m. and ends at 4:00 p.m. So, during that time my mother-in-law takes care of my son,” she said.

Balancing time is just one aspect of starting a new life in America for the time being. Carrying on traditions with her child is something Aigerim values. She wants to make sure Alinur grows up with traditional Kazakh customs, even though he’s in the United States while his parents are studying. Aigerim and her husband even celebrated his first birthday like they would in Kazakhstan.

“You could not imagine how we prepared for his first birthday party; we did some hand made decorations and cooked variety of meal based on our traditional cuisine,” she said.

Aigerim and her family keep Kazakh tradition as they celebrate Alinur’s first birthday in the United States.

Aigerim and her family celebrated the next step in Alinur’s life with some of their family and the friends they made here so far.


Though Aigerim was lucky enough to celebrate her son’s birthday here in the United States, others like Aidos Kazankapov, have had to make different sacrifices in order to pursue their education.

Aidos had to leave his wife and son, Tamerlan, at home in Kazakhstan while studying at the IEI this semester. Technology nowadays like Skype and sending pictures, has made the distance between them smaller. Constant communication is key for their family.

“The main purpose of the video talks is that we don’t want my son to forget my voice and appearance. If there’s any chance to have a video call, we use that time,” he said.

But even with good technology and communication, Aidos has still missed some big moments so far. Tamerlan walked and turned one within the past few months without his father there. Aidos says missing these milestones was one of the reasons making the decision to study at the IEI in America was so difficult.

“It was hard to make the decision, but it’s very important for me because this will be the foundation of my education and future,” Aidos said.

Aidos poses with his family before coming to study at the IEI. Though it’s hard to be away, he knows learning English with help his family in the long run.

Learning English will help Aidos apply for graduate schools and prepare him for his future career. According to him, the sacrifices will be valuable for Tamerlan in the long run. For Aidos, not only will bettering his career help his family financially, but studying will also give his son a valuable example of constantly learning in any stage of life.

“To leave your family in another part of the world, you have to have good motivation. You have to have a deep understanding of yourself and what you want,” Aidos said. Pursing dreams despite the obstacles of balancing family life whether here or abroad is never easy. But for the students at the IEI, juggling responsibilities is proving to be a rewarding experience nonetheless.

Written by IEI Intern Maria Rubin De Celis

Embracing Change: IEI Students Adjust to Life in America

There are a lot of noticeable differences when coming to a country that is not your own for the first time. There are different languages to adjust to, different currency to deal with, and even the different ways of conducting day-to-day activities has to be accounted for. Among these major differences, sometimes the subtle ones are the most interesting to observe. For our first semester students at the Intensive English Institute (IEI), it’s the little things in their daily lives here that stick out most from life back in their home countries.

Jungwon Shin and her friend, Juyoung Park from Korea, explain the “strange” things they’ve encountered in America in their time here so far. These things range from how school is conducted to how American grocery stores work.

“Here, if I go to the market, they give free plastic bags, but in Korea, we pay for the plastic bags,” she said.

Juyoung discovered that you don’t have to pay for plastic grocery bags.

Juyoung  also mentioned that the Americans he has interacted with so far are much more touchy than Koreans when they first meet. When he met his brother’s acquaintance for the first time, the girl immediately gave Juyoung a hug, which is generally uncommon in his Korean background.

“I have two people to hug in Korea: my girlfriend and my grandma—that’s all,” Park said.

The eager greetings of Americans stuck out to Renata Zakirova of Russia, as well. She noticed right away that Americans she’s encountered typically smile often, even to strangers.

“One of the first things I noticed is that Americans always smile in different situations. When you go to the market, or [go] shopping, or visit the doctor, they always smile,” Zakirova said.

Americans love to smile and give the thumbs up! (here some IEI students “try their hand” at it)

These little differences might not amount to much, but for culture shock, big or small, the IEI creates programs to ease this adjustment of living in America for the first time.

The first week before classes begin, new students are required to go through an orientation at the IEI. During orientation, faculty inform students about what their experience studying at the IEI, and in America in general, might look like. Here, some cultural differences are explained, too, so that these subtle differences will be easier to detect for the students. For example, there was a brief seminar at this year’s orientation about what appropriate distances look like while having simple conversations. Through this, students were able to engage in other people’s cultures by seeing what appropriate speaking distances are like among men and women in Kazakhstan, China, and Korea, to name a few.

As the semester progresses, activities held by the IEI interns have also aided in the cultural transition. Interns host things like volunteering and cooking nights so that students have a chance to engage in new experiences. They learn from others in fun and creative ways.

One thing that helped generate conversation about the culture shock students encountered was the first IEI ChitChat. ChitChats are monthly events where students practice their English through discussing certain topics. The first ChitChat topic of the year was about the cultural differences students experienced so far in their time here. They had a safe space to discuss their time here and how they were feeling so far, as well.

Students gather to discuss the cultural differences they’ve experienced so far in the United States at the first IEI ChitChat.

“It seemed like an appropriate first topic because they had been in the States for a few weeks. Just to be able to answer any questions they might have had about weird cultural things they might have seen seemed helpful,” Matt Koch, an IEI intern said when referring to why he helped choose this topic as the initial ChitChat theme.

Answering questions and engaging in a new culture around them has been quite an experience so far for the new IEI students. Throughout the rest of the semester, continuing to learn from each other is just an added benefit to studying English in the United States.

As Renata says, “Studying [here at the IEI] has helped me. I get to meet different people from different countries and different cultures.” Hopefully throughout the rest of the semester, students can continue immersing themselves in these new cultures and experiences around them. English won’t be the only thing they learn here at the IEI.

Written by IEI Intern Maria Rubin De Celis

Dear Future IEI Student,

Dear Future IEI Students,

We are so glad that you’ve chosen to join the IEI this semester! As a way of welcoming you, some of our former students have written you a few postcards sharing their experience and some advice. We hope you will find their kind words encouraging and insightful.

See you soon!























Shall We Dance? International Prom Night

12986873_10209551145402213_759490503_oFor many Americans, high school prom stirs up fond or quite possibly embarrassing memories. We might think about who we asked or how we got asked, what the after party was like and what group we went with. But for others, prom is just a funny word or tradition.

Prom is an American high school tradition where students hold an end of the year dance before graduation. It’s been portrayed in movies, television shows, and books, but it’s the details of the event that make it so exciting and memorable for young adults. Depending on your school’s culture, it may be uncommon to go with a group of friends rather than a date. But one thing is for sure, everyone can agree that the thrill of prom comes from dressing up, eating and dancing with your friends, planning an after prom party with your closest friends, and enjoying the four years of hard work that got you to this celebratory moment.


April 8, the IEI along with International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS), hosted their very first International Prom Night at the YMCA from 7 to 10 pm. I interviewed IEI teacher and Social Activities Coordinator Chris Huh, who was also in charge of the event, to understand a little more of what inspired her to make this idea come to life.

“American students get to experience prom so now international students can experience it too. Since domestic and international students are both invited, it’s a good way to wrap up International Week where American and international students will be able to mingle and learn something about other cultures,” explained Chris. “When students first heard about the event, they were confused and had no idea what prom actually was. We had to post pics and show them proper prom attire to explain the concept.”


We may not be high school students, but at the end of the year it is only fair that IEI students be given a well deserved evening of fun and great company. So, after collaborating with the ISSS, it only made sense that the theme reflect International Week’s focus on sustainability and environmental awareness.

As a result, the prom’s theme was Enchanted Forest. I went to the event myself to take a look at how a high school prom was going to be recreated on a college campus. I watched as students sheepishly walked in with a smile, dressed in tuxes or beautiful traditional clothing. Next to the welcome sign laid a banner printed with the words, International Prom Night 2016 where guests could write their name and what country they were from. It was a perfect and beautiful representation of the diverse yet unified community seen that evening.

As guests poured in, the cupid shuffle line dance was being taught and soon right after that, the cha-cha slide took center stage, literally. I was not sure how comfortable the students would be to dance, but I was taken aback at the sight of how willing and carefree everyone was to hop and spin along with the music.


No prom could be complete without food to supply the excitement and energy. I’m not sure whether or not the students were more thrilled when the song, “Gangnam Style” by South Korean singer, PSY, came on or when they realized there was catering from YoriQ, KoFusion, and Y Eatery.


Didn’t make it this year? Not to worry. During my interview with Chris, I asked her whether or not there would be a second international prom night. “If the first one is a success, and there’s a really great turn out, then we would definitely bring it back next spring,” answered Chris. Around 100 guests attended the event and between eating, dancing, and talking with friends, they were all smiles!


It might just be a dance to us or a fun time to play dress up, but for IEI students, this Prom Night was a chance for them to meet domestic students and do something they had never experienced.


It became more than following an American tradition; instead, Prom Night became something so harmoniously diverse that it truly did stand alone as its own event. More than just dancing to a soundtrack or eating food with a couple of friends, it was a time to belong and be a part of something beautiful. International Week brings a variety of cultures and backgrounds together to celebrate the commonalities rather than the differences that make us uniquely human.

Written by IEI Communications and Marketing Intern, Erin Lin

at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign