The mirror: looking at stories through pictures

The old saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” couldn’t be truer this past April during the Sharing Memories; the Mirror art exhibit. At this event, IEI student, Maureen Riquelme Vasquez opened the window into her own life through her art. She showcased photography documenting her time here in the United States, and the people in her life that made her life worthwhile.

Maureen is from Chile, and began studying at the IEI in August 2015. When she came to learn English, she knew getting involved in the community would make her time in the U.S. more memorable. One of her most recent endeavors began when she signed up to take an art class designed to help members of the Latino community express themselves. Maureen got involved when the teacher of the class reached out to her.

“The photography teacher is from Colombia. She invited me to participate in her class because taking photographs is one of my hobbies,” Maureen said.


Having a community here solely for Latin Americans made the distance from she and her home in Chile a bit smaller. She got to work alongside her class all year and get to make connections with the people in it. Maureen worked week after week to discover new mediums, hone her skills, and explore who she was through photography. The final exhibit this month finally boasted Maureen’s and her classmates’ yearlong journey.

“Our teachers wanted to show our history and how people from different countries see the art from our personal experiences. It’s kind of a look into the mirror our lives,” she said.

During the exhibit, Maureen was proud of the work she and he classmates had done. She said seeing her art reflect her life and her story through the people around her was an unforgettable experience. The end result of all the meaningful work summed up her personal growth. At the exhibit, she was finally able to step back and see the whole picture.


“In the beginning of this project we never saw how far we were going. I’m really impressed about it,” Maureen said.

Though she is going home after this semester, Maureen wants to continue her hobby. She loves taking pictures and will continue to do so everywhere and anywhere she goes. What she has learned in both her art class and in her time studying abroad will be cherished forever. Though she is saying goodbye, the IEI will be forever woven into her story.


Written by IEI Intern Maria Rubin De Celis


Having Fun and Learning Outside of the Classroom

Most people associate hitting the books and going to class when they think of receiving a good education. Two IEI students took their learning to the next level, however, and proved that learning extends far beyond the classroom.

When Yuki Nakamura came to the United States from Japan to study English, he knew that to receive the best experience possible, he would have to immerse himself fully into the language. His first and favorite choice was to embrace and rekindle one of his old hobbies from home—Judo.yuki

Back in Japan, Yuki tried the form of martial arts, nine years ago and loved it. Years later, as he started classes at the IEI this semester, Yuki chose to use his hobby not just to have fun, but to learn English as well.

“I wanted a chance to talk to native speakers. In Judo club, I can talk to native speakers,” he said about accomplishing his goals for joining the class.

Yuki’s goals to learn outside of the classroom to improve English skills have been a positive experience for him so far. Every day in Judo class, he said he gets to practice listening and speaking through explaining different Judo skills to his fellow classmates and listening to what the instructors have to say.

However, though supplementing language skills has been good, the personal benefits have been better, he said.

“In Judo club, it is a good experience for me because I’ve met many people. The most fun experience was when I went to a home party of one of my Judo class members. I got to go  and join the party with other students” Yuki said.yuki2

Yuki isn’t the only student benefitting from joining extracurricular activities. Making new friends and connections was a major reward for Eunsook Choi, too, when she tried dance lessons for the first time this semester.

Eunsook, a student from Korea, joined a dance class this semester after visiting a dance club her host mother was a part of. To learn a variety of dances, Eunsook gets experience in swing, tango, cha-cha, and ballroom dancing, to name a few.

Like Yuki, Eunsook said one of the most helpful parts is the English practice she gets from attending the lessons.Eunsook

“There are women and men on either side, and we rotate partners every five minutes, so I have many chances to speak with native speakers,” she said.

This extra practice makes her more comfortable with communicating in English, and she said she feels as though it has been a helpful part of her time here in the United States.

“I can meet new native speakers and I have the opportunity to speak with them and get to know them,” Eunsook said of the connections she’s made so far this semester.

Being bold and stepping out of comfort zones, especially with language, can be difficult when coming to a country for the first time. Though intimidating at first, students like Yuki and Eunsook prove that getting the fullest experience abroad means pushing yourself, learning, and having fun both inside and outside the classroom.

Written by IEI Intern Maria Rubin De Celis



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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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

at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign