Living in this dorm offers world of experiences, connections

Signs and posters in several languages converge in a first-floor collage representing a multitude of places around the globe. Brightly colored flags adorn the walls at every turn.

Conversations in such languages as Arabic, Spanish and Japanese spill out from the bedrooms. From the kitchen downstairs drift smells of pizza accented by snippets of Italian.

Outside, students toss around wooden blocks in an intense game of Kubb, a Nordic sport.

What might sound like scenes from an Olympic village are everyday occurrences from the University of Wisconsin­–Madison’s International Learning Community (ILC), in Adams Hall, by the shore of Lake Mendota.

UW-Madison’s International Learning Community from UW-Madison International Studies on Vimeo.

The ILC grew out of The Global Village, which was established in 1996 on the top floor of Merit Hall, with 26 residents. The residents explored cultural similarities and differences through guest speakers and discussion about global issues, while building friendships.

Michael Hinden, professor emeritus of English and former associate dean of the Division of International Studies, launched an effort in 2001 to expand the size and scope of this program, which resulted in the move to Adams Hall in 2002 and the new name. Hinden drew inspiration from Alexander Meiklejohn, the professor who crafted the University of Wisconsin’s first residential college in the 1920s.

The original plans for the ILC had included four goals:

  • To attract both domestic and international students
  • To promote study abroad
  • To involve faculty who would provide educational opportunities
  • To focus on cross-cultural learning

At the same time, the Department of German was looking to establish a language floor for students in one of the residence halls.

“But at the time, the German Department didn’t know about the ILC, and the ILC didn’t know about the German Department’s plans,” Hinden said last fall at a dinner commemorating the ILC’s 10th year. “It was logical to combine efforts and propose a partnership, and that’s what happened.”

And that brought language into the picture.

ILC Day activities. Photos: Joel Ninmann/UW-Madison Division of University Housing
ILC Day activities. Photo: Joel Ninmann / UW-Madison Division of University Housing
ILC Day 2013
ILC Day activities. Photo: Joel Ninmann/UW-Madison Division of University Housing

“The issue for the early years was how to integrate it,” says Ruben Medina, professor of Spanish and Portuguese, who succeeded Hinden as the ILC’s faculty director in 2003.

“Does it make sense to have international programs and a language focus? Because the problem we saw was that a language program was an entity in itself and if you have two or three language programs, what will be the connection?” Medina explains.

“I think that through the years, I realized that it was so natural to be learning a language and learning about global issues, learning about other cultures and that sometimes that students are not just learning one language but multiple.”

Today, the ILC is one of several residential learning communities on campus, which also includes the Green House, the Multicultural Learning Community (MLC) and the Chadbourne Residential College.

What sets the ILC apart is its focus on international experiences. The ILC includes seven language houses—for Arabic (Baytunaa), Japanese (Nihongo Hausu), Spanish (Residencia de Estudiantes), Russian (Russkii Dom), Italian (Piazza Italia), German (Stockwerk Deutsch) and Nordic (Norden House) languages—with an eighth, for Portuguese (A Nossa Casa), set to open this fall.

“I love that our language houses are not just languages that are commonly spoken,” says Jolene Esterline, the ILC’s program director. “If we say we are going to be international, we have to be international.”

But the ILC offers more than a collection of language houses.

“We really have intentionally tried to scatter the language houses throughout [the ILC], and we fill in the blank spots with what we call the General ILC,” Esterline says. “They are people who maybe speak a language we don’t offer, or maybe weren’t sure about the language experience.”

Each language house is supported by an academic department and has a faculty member assigned to facilitate much of the program. The program includes bi-weekly seminars on international topics and roundtable dinners that focus on various international themes, such as world music and politics.

“I would say we have a really high curiosity rate in the ILC, and, because of that, people tend to go outside of their comfort zone and do things they wouldn’t normally tend to do,” says Kyle Farrell, an ILC house fellow and junior studying economics, international studies and Russian.

Before becoming a house fellow, Farrell was an ILC resident.

“My sophomore year I enrolled into the ILC on the Russian floor. The immersion and practice that you get speaking Russian every day with people around you is so much more helpful than any class you can take here,” says Farrell.

ILC residents celebrating India's festival of Holi. Photo: Joel Ninmann/UW-Madison Division of University Housing
ILC residents celebrating India’s festival of Holi. Photo: Joel Ninmann/UW-Madison Division of University Housing
ILC residents celebrating India's festival of Holi. Photo: Joel Ninmann/UW-Madison Division of University Housing
ILC residents celebrating India’s festival of Holi. Photo: Joel Ninmann/UW-Madison Division of University Housing

And that immersion goes beyond language for these students.

“We had an ‘epic Thanksgiving,’” says Chelsea Leigh-Flucus, from the Bronx, N.Y., a Nordic House resident and a senior majoring in philosophy. “Because our residents come from all over the world, (some) can’t go home for the holidays … and these students have no idea what Thanksgiving is. So we really like to immerse one another in different cultures.”

These types of community events range from cooking a meal together, such as potatoes and Swedish meatballs with their professors, or, most recently, ILC Day, filled with events revolving around the ILC.

While most students who live in dorms at UW–Madison are freshmen, a large percentage of the 145 students who currently live in the ILC are not. Many are students returning from studying abroad or preparing to study abroad in the near future.

“To participate in a language program, depending on what language it is, you may need a semester or two of a language on campus,” Esterline says. “So a lot of our language students are upperclassmen. On average, I would say about 50 percent of students are sophomores or higher.”

She adds, “The other really big misconception is that we are for international students only. Well, we have international students who live here, but we are open to everyone.”

Moving into its second decade, the ILC is continuing to grow—a trend that those involved with the tight-knit learning community want to maintain.

“Our focus now is to really trying to get the language programs into a really strong place,” Esterline says. “We would love to see those numbers grow so that every language program would have at least 10 students to really enhance the immersion experience.”

— by Jeff Cartwright