Meet Monika. Monika Mendoza has been a ConvoPartner with the Intensive English Institute for over 25 years! She is a valued member of the University of Illinois community, and we spent time with her, learning about her generous spirit, her capacity for building friendships across cultures, and her commitment to the international student experience in Urbana-Champaign.
About the Intensive English Institute (IEI)
Since 1967, IEI has helped thousands of international students and professionals improve their English language proficiency. IEI became part of GET in July 2018. IEI provides full-time and part-time curriculum options in its Intensive English Program for international universities, businesses, educational agencies, and other Illinois units. The IEI collaborates with GET on many TESL and TEFL training programs.
Become a ConvoPartner Volunteer
Meet with an IEI student and help improve their English language skills - for at least one hour each week for casual conversation and mutual cultural exchange.
Volunteers must be:
On understanding the student experience
I'm from Zurich, Switzerland - the German-speaking part. Sometimes, I question, "Is it okay for me to be a conversation partner?" I've been here for a long time, and I know where they come from. I went through the same thing at one point.
On being part of an international family
My husband is from the Philippines, so we are a very international family. That’s interesting in many ways for the students, as well. We have three children, but they grew up here. So, they were American children.
We met in Seattle, Washington. He did his Ph.D. there, and I was there, learning English. We met through a Christian organization. But then, he had to go back to the Philippines, to teach there. And, I went with him.
I lived in the Philippines for four years. We thought we would go to Switzerland, but that wasn’t really possible for him, because of his studies and not knowing Swiss-German. So, we said we’d try America, since that’s where he did his Ph.D. And we gave it six months, on a tourist’s visa, while he applied for a job. Just nine days before it expired, he got a job at the University here. So we were very blessed. We came here in 1984.
On getting connected to the IEI
A friend, probably 30 years ago, she worked with IEI. And she told me to start hosting some people, and we started hosting. At the time, they had Japanese groups here, and we had several groups from Japan over several years. For some time then, we didn’t host, when my children were small. A few years later, I approached them.
On preparing unfamiliar cuisine
Most of the time, I invite them to my house. We have lunch or dinner together. Most of them are just at the University for one year, and that’s it. I cook just about anything. Because I have them over so often, sometimes we have dishes that are more involved, sometimes less, depending upon how much time we have. Because, afterwards, we often go for a walk, but then they have to be back in time to study.
Some of the dishes are familiar to them, some are not. But they enjoy that, as well. I start cooking with more familiar things, but then it seems like, "Oh, they want to try new things!"
Swiss cheese fondue - that’s a special one. Even American food is unfamiliar to them, when they come here for the first time. I have collected recipes from people that I have had dinner with, and I keep making those dishes.
The other part that they love is baking. They are not used to that, and I love to bake. I like easy recipes that taste very good. I bake lots of different things. They really like that, and then they try it in their apartment, as well afterwards.
On welcoming students into her home
I almost wish you would have come to my house for this interview! I have lots of flowers, and that's the first thing they see. It's not very American, it's more the Swiss way. So, they come in and go, "Oh! You have all of these flowers!" Marigolds, impatients, salvias. I'll buy hundreds of flowers and plant them.
I like colorful things, and red is my favorite color. So they come in, and they see all of these colors in my house, which isn’t typical either, of course. There are so many things from other countries all over the house. They remark on those things - how homey it looks, how interesting, how colorful.
On international friendships
In Europe, I have been to several countries - England, Ireland, France. In Italy, I visited a former student from here. I also host a lot of students in addition to IEI ConvoPartners. I also meet friends of their friends of their friends. Now, I don’t really know anymore who was an IEI student - it’s a little foggy!
I’m a one-on-one person. For me, meeting them one-on-one and chatting our thoughts - not just talking about anything, going a little bit deeper, that’s what I enjoy the most. When traveling, I like to go visit a person or a family. Usually, I don’t travel just to travel. For me, it’s more about being with them.
On changing conversations
The biggest change was that nowadays, [the students] know way better English. During those times, at least in my experience, they hardly knew English. So, it was harder to have 'special' conversations; it was more basics. Nowadays, we can talk about anything.
Many that I have met, mostly at IEI, want to be part of the University, so they can do their studies here. This is nice for me because I can stay in touch with them, instead of just having them for a couple of months, three months, a semester.
Thank you, Monika!