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Presidential Debate Brings International and Local Students Together


By Sarah Geegan
A large university setting like the University of Kentucky can often present difficulties in facilitating one-on-one interaction between international students and local students; however this exchange is very important. It allows international students to enhance their cultural experiences and English proficiency, and it provides domestic students with global perspectives. The University of Kentucky Center for English as a Second Language Department (CESL) works to facilitate these interactions, most recently through a joint-viewing of the first presidential debate.
CESL, in collaboration with the UK Department of Political Science and the UK Honors Program, arranged for the ESL students and American students to view the debate together. ESL instructor William McIlwain took the lead in planning the event, in coordination with assistant director for the CESL Tina Durbin; political science professor Stephen Voss; and UK Honors Program professor Buck Ryan.
"We have recently become neighbors to the political science department, so that is one reason that we wanted to partner with them," Durbin said. "But we are really wanting to partner with anyone on campus who wishes for their students to engage with the many international and ESL students at UK, who benefit enormously from interaction with American and regular UK students."
The debate, which was shown on campus in the Whitehall Classroom Building provided the students the chance to gather and discuss the election's relevant issues. The ESL students had a chance both to watch an important event in American society and to interact with native English speakers. Both the high attendance and the overall success of the event encouraged the coordinators to plan more events centered on the election, allowing students to come together and learn from each other.
The Center for ESL at UK will host another event for the vice-presidential debate on Thursday, Oct.11, at 8 p.m., in room 204 of the White Hall Classroom Building.  
The topic of this debate will include domestic as well as foreign policy, issues on which international students can uniquely contribute to discussions. The event will grant American students the opportunity to learn from their international peers through their distinct perspectives; the event serves as a forum for the students to openly discuss their ideas, as well as answer questions from each other.
"A lot of our students are from China and the Middle East, and those areas will definitely come up in the debate," McIlwain said. "We have several students from Turkey and Iraq, so it should be a good opportunity for American students to interact with those students, human to human."
McIlwain said that when he was structuring the event, he know he could lecture the students on definitions and vocabulary, but he found much more value in letting them take the lead and use the time as a discussion hour.
"It is interesting to watch international students and Americans sit down at the same table and interact, when sometimes the world cannot do that," Durbin said.
Before the debate began, Voss lectured on body language and other factors in previous debates. McIlwain also provided important vocabulary terms to assist the ESL students in following the debate discourse.  
"It's important to mention that our students are very intelligent; English is their barrier, not intelligence levels," Durbin said. "So when he focused on body language, that was something everyone could understand and learn about. "
Durbin said that she considered the event an enormous success, both in educating her students about American culture and politics, and opening doors for friendships and exchanges between international and American students.
"America is a much more individualistic and private society, so it's often difficult for International students to engage with Americans and begin dialogues," McIllwain said. "For linguistic and cultural reasons, it can be intimidating for students to reach out to native UK students, so this event is a great opportunity provide a forum for that interaction to take place."
For more information on the viewing parties contact William McIlwain, at
The Center for English as a Second Language is a part of the UK College of Arts and Sciences
MEDIA CONTACT: Sarah Geegan, (859) 257-5365;