Increasing Intercultural Competence through Consultant Education

Technology, Uncategorized / Monday, October 23rd, 2017

By Christa Tiernan and Kelly Wenig –


Christa Tiernan has directed the Writing and Media Center at Iowa State University since June 2015. Before then, she worked at the writing centers at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (2013-2015), the University of Wisconsin-Madison (2007-2013), and the University of Virginia (2004-2006). Christa holds a PhD in English: Literary Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (2014), an MA in English Literature from the University of Virginia (2006), and a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of California, San Diego (2003). Image courtesy of Christopher Gannon, Iowa State University.
Kelly Wenig has served as the Intercultural Learning Specialist at the Writing and Media Center at Iowa State University since May 2017. In 2016-2017, he served as the center’s research assistant. Kelly holds a PhD in History from Iowa State University (2017), an MA in History from the University of Cincinnati (2008), and a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (2006). Image courtesy of Christopher Gannon, Iowa State University.

The recent upsurge in international student enrollment in American public research universities has prompted us to think about the adaptability of writing centers during periods of changing university demographics. How do writing centers respond to enrollment trends?

Let there be no mistake: the demographics of American public research universities are changing. As state appropriations for these institutions are being reduced further and further, international students are being recruited in larger and larger numbers, their tuition being perceived as a partial solution to shortfalls in funding (Redden). Since 2011-2012, the United States has witnessed a sharp increase in international student enrollment. According to the Institute of International Education, in 2014-2015, international student enrollment in American institutions of higher education increased 10%, and in 2015-2016, there were over one million international students in the United States.

Between 2007-2008 and 2016-2017, Iowa State University of Science and Technology, a public R1 land-grant institution, experienced 10 consecutive years of enrollment growth. Between 2012-2013 and 2016-2017, the university also witnessed an almost 18% increase in international student enrollment. In Fall 2016, over 4,100 international students representing 124 countries were enrolled at Iowa State University (Office of Institutional Research).

In Summer 2016, the university initiated a 3-year rollout of supplemental international tuition. Intended to cover the costs of providing services unique to international students, the tuition amounted to $250 per semester in 2016-2017. That dollar amount increased to $500 per semester in 2017-2018 and will increase further to $750 per semester in 2018-2019 and beyond (Office of the Registrar). In Summer 2016, the Writing and Media Center, a unit of the Dean of Students Office at Iowa State University, was identified as one of the beneficiaries of this funding because of its emphasis on communication instruction.

Serving International Students at the Writing and Media Center

Between FY12 and FY17, the Writing and Media Center experienced a 236% increase in consultations.[1] International students, who consistently comprised over 11% of the Iowa State University population, were a driving force behind this growth. In FY17, the Writing and Media Center experienced a 36% increase in consultations with international students and a 17% increase in unique international student visitors over FY16. International students accounted for 47% of the Writing and Media Center’s consultations and 28% of the Writing and Media Center’s unique student visitors.

It was therefore fortuitous that the Writing and Media Center received substantial funding to enhance its services to international students in FY17. With this funding, the Writing and Media Center implemented a multifaceted action plan that included the hiring of a full-time Intercultural Learning Specialist, who will launch an advanced consultant education program called “Global Perspectives on Communication” in Spring 2018.[2] What follows is a description of the process of creating both this position and this program. We offer our experiences as a springboard off which other writing centers may leap as they envision innovative ways to effectively serve the international students on their campuses.

Toward an Intercultural Learning Specialist

The Hixson-Lied Student Success Center, home of the Writing and Media Center’s primary satellite location

Within weeks of learning that it had been identified as a recipient of supplemental international tuition, the Writing and Media Center developed a 6-part implementation plan detailing how it would use these funds in the immediate future. The plan included the hiring of a doctoral-level research assistant as a step toward the eventual hiring of a professional staff member. Kelly Wenig was hired as the research assistant on a half-time, 9-month contract. He was tasked with (1) assessing the level at which the Writing and Media Center was meeting the needs of international students; (2) determining how well the Writing and Media Center was preparing its communication consultants to serve international students; (3) investigating how other American writing centers were serving international students; (4) researching the prevalence and effectiveness of ESL Specialists and Multilingual Learning Specialists in American writing centers; and (5) assisting the leadership team in the development of a position description for a professional staff member who would help the Writing and Media Center enhance its services to international students.

To determine the level at which the Writing and Media Center was meeting the needs of international students, Kelly developed an assessment instrument, a Qualtrics survey, that communication consultants administered via an iPad at the end of each consultation. The exit survey asked students to assess the Writing and Media Center’s staff, spaces, and services and suggest ways in which the center could enhance its services to international students. Between October and December 2016, the Writing and Media Center collected hundreds of responses to these questions.

Over the course of these 3 months, Kelly also investigated how other American writing centers were serving international students. He poured over the existing scholarship on this topic and interviewed a number of writing center administrators via email and over the phone. Kelly discussed his findings with the rest of the Writing and Media Center’s leadership team in weekly meetings. These exploratory conversations circled around how the Writing and Media Center could build upon the foundational work of other writing centers; adapt existing ideas to suit the context of Iowa State University; initiate a scholarly conversation about how writing centers respond to enrollment trends; and advance the broader discussion around international student enrollment in American public research universities. Over time, the leadership team developed and refined a plan to hire a full-time Intercultural Learning Specialist, who would be responsible for designing, implementing, and assessing a novel advanced consultant education program aimed at increasing the intercultural competence of experienced communication consultants.

In March 2017, the Writing and Media Center hired Kelly as its inaugural Intercultural Learning Specialist on a one-year, renewable contract via a waiver of advertisement. Upon the completion of his doctorate in May 2017, Kelly brought to the position a wealth of knowledge about the intersections between writing centers and international students; competence in Spanish, Japanese, and German language and culture; expertise in American, Latin American, and European/Eurasian history; and nearly a decade of college-level teaching experience.

The Nuts and Bolts of “Global Perspectives on Communication”

In Spring 2018, Kelly will launch “Global Perspectives on Communication” with an 8-hour learning module on China, the country most represented in the international demographics of the Writing and Media Center, Iowa State University, and American public research universities. Due to financial constraints and the need to maintain minimum staffing levels in the Writing and Media Center, the module will be limited to 10 communication consultants. It will consist of four 2-hour seminars; participants will be paid for these hours as well as 90 minutes of prep time per seminar. So, each communication consultant will be compensated for 14 hours of work over the course of the semester. Additionally, they will receive a special endorsement from the Writing and Media Center on their Iowa State University co-curricular transcript, a document that enables students to showcase the breadth of their achievements to potential employers and academic selection committees.

In the future, “Global Perspectives on Communication” will be expanded to include learning modules on countries such as India and Saudi Arabia. Structured around guest lectures and small-group discussions, each module will explore the intersections between culture and language. Individual seminars will focus on history, sociocultural norms, rhetorical strategies, and linguistic patterns.

For instance, the learning module on China will begin with an overview of Chinese history. A guest speaker specializing in Chinese history will deliver a 60-minute presentation, then Kelly will facilitate a discussion about social, cultural, political, economic, and religious developments in recent Chinese history. The second seminar will compare and contrast sociocultural norms in China and the United States. Several Chinese graduate students will speak with communication consultants about their experiences at Iowa State University, both inside and outside the classroom. In the third seminar, a guest speaker specializing in contrastive rhetoric will help communication consultants understand how to best guide Chinese students toward meeting the expectations of American instructors. The final seminar will feature a presentation by a Linguistics professor, who will invite communication consultants to think about the lower-order concerns that challenge Chinese students the most. As a whole, the learning module will provide communication consultants with opportunities to reflect upon their past experiences with Chinese students and ask questions about best practices to use in future consultations with them.

Desired Outcomes of “Global Perspectives on Communication”

As a collaborative project between Student Affairs and Academic Affairs, “Global Perspectives on Communication” has numerous desired outcomes. First, the Writing and Media Center’s leadership team wants to provide communication consultants with more specialized education than they receive in the introductory consultant education program, “Writing Center Theory and Practice.” This education will in turn help them serve international students more effectively. Additionally, the advanced consultant education program will provide communication consultants with opportunities to learn about other cultures without studying abroad; conversely, it may inspire them to study abroad. More broadly, the program will equip communication consultants with a portable knowledge base and a variety of transferrable skills that will serve them well in their personal, civic, academic, and professional lives. Finally, the program will help the Writing and Media Center’s leadership team contribute to the scholarship on consultant education models, writing center organizational structures, and the emerging profession of Intercultural Learning Specialists.

Image courtesy of the Office of University Marketing, Iowa State University.


[1] The Writing and Media Center operates year-round and therefore reports fiscal year data. FY12, for instance, represents July 1, 2011 through June 30, 2012.

[2] Each fall, novice communication consultants participate in an introductory consultant education program called “Writing Center Theory and Practice.” This is a 16-week “course” for which communication consultants receive compensation in lieu of class credit.

Works Cited

Institute of International Education. “International Student Enrollment Trends, 1948/49-2015/16.” Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. Web. 20 Oct. 2017.

Office of Institutional Research, Iowa State University. Iowa State University Fact Book. Web. 20 Oct. 2017.

Office of the Registrar, Iowa State University. “International Tuition—Frequently Asked Questions.” Web. 20 Oct. 2017.

Redden, Elizabeth. “State Shortfalls and Foreign Students.” Inside Higher Ed. 3 Jan. 2017. Web. 20 Oct. 2017.


5 Replies to “Increasing Intercultural Competence through Consultant Education”

  1. Great work, Christa and Kelly!

    I wonder–is the influx of international students concentrated in large research universities like ISU? Or are smaller schools like regional public universities seeing comparable demographic shifts, just on a smaller scale in terms of absolute numbers? I ask because, as I was reading through this, I kept wondering what it would take to establish a similar program in a smaller writing center.

  2. Thanks for this post Christa and Kelly!

    When I read this post, I was impressed the various academic-administrative object lessons that this fine post offers to the readers of Another Word. It is clear from the history, the planning, and the careful negotiations that the amount of work dedicated to the “Global Perspectives on Communication” modules will yield significant results for the students at Iowa State, and for those involved in the one-to-one work of your Writing and Media Center. I would like to applaud your university’s foresight and its strategic vision in dedicating the appropriate resources to ensuring the success of this endeavor. And applause clearly goes to you two as well, concerning the fine administrative work of bringing together academic and student affairs. I do not know whether you enjoy a robust, cooperative relationship between academic and student affairs on your campus, but this endeavor should surely serve as an impetus for promoting more of this good and useful work.

    This project at Iowa State represents the central role that writing centers can play in a university as a collaborative model for educational advancement. Such project work should also be studied by future writing center directors as a model of how essential it is to take a “long view” on writing center administration, and how such an administrative approach can yield significant results that promote the educational outcomes and culture of education at our research institutions.

    Christopher J. Syrnyk
    Associate Professor of Communication
    Director, Oregon Tech Honors Program
    Oregon Tech
    Klamath Falls, Oregon

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Christa and Kelly! “Global Perspectives on Communication” sounds like a fascinating learning opportunity. I appreciate how you emphasize the long-lasting benefits to the tutors, as well as their clients. It is so important in this day and age for Americans to continue to educate ourselves about other cultures and perspectives, and to support our vibrant international community.

    Laura Hitt
    MFA in Creative Writing and Environment, 3rd year
    English 250 instructor; Graduate Communication Consultant

  4. Wow, thanks for sharing this account of all your hard work, Christa and Kelly. I’m impressed with the intellectual, administrative, and inter-disciplinary heavy lifting it must have taken to get this program in place. But I’m also glad for the questions you seem to raising, directly or indirectly, about the role of writing centers (and perhaps writing instruction more broadly) in fostering cross-cultural understanding and in prompting civic engagement and curiosity – I see, Christa, that the Wisconsin Idea has followed you to Iowa. I also know that ESL specialists on writing centers’ staff can be beneficial in many ways, but it seems, too, that casting this role as an “Intercultural Communications Specialist” position takes care to think through the complex needs of Iowa State international students, beyond mere language mechanics. Even just the way you’ve framed the role, then, seems like it’s emerging from that understanding you’re seeking to develop in your tutors.

    Leigh Elion
    Lecturer, Writing Program
    UC-Santa Barbara

  5. Christa and Kelly are doing really big things in Iowa State’s Writing and Media Center(WMC). I am happy to know that the staff is so eager with their efforts on expanding their reach to all students, and shining light on the various cultures that come into the WMC.
    I am also very excited to see what the future holds with the work to be done on the “Global Perspectives on Communication” learning module. I cannot wait to participate.

    Kelvin Williams
    Student in MIS @ Iowa State, 4th year
    Administrative Assistant, WMC

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