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UI employee works to blend diversity

BY HANNAH KRAMER | OCTOBER 24, 2011 7:20 AM

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The University of Iowa employs faculty and staff from all over the world, and it is Jane Gressang's job to help make that mix of people works.

Working in Staff Language and Culture Services, it's her job to make the UI a place where all employees communicate and work together, regardless of their language background.

"When you talk to someone from a different language background, it's hard," Gressang said. "A lot of it is that you don't want to offend the other person."

For her, every day is a chance to make that challenge easier and create healthy relationships among staff members by helping them understand one another through language.

"She's got a sense of dedication and really is an advocate for staff that she works with not only in helping them with their English but in also helping them negotiate the workplace," said Maureen Burke, the director of the English as a Second Language program.

Burke, who has known Gressang as a student, teacher, and colleague at the UI, said she's an asset to the university.

The 36-year-old came to the UI after earning a bachelor's degree in Spanish from the University of Virginia and continued her studies in Iowa, earning a doctorate in linguistics.

Gressang works with employees from all areas of the university, ranging from food-service staff to professors.

Gressang's coworkers said she's a natural fit for the department.

"She has some unique insights into language and culture that help her deal with a lot of these folks," said Peter Rohrbough, who also works in Staff Language and Culture Services.

Gressang not only provides English as a Second Language instruction and hosts English and Spanish conversation groups, she also assists English-speaking staff members who interact with non-native speakers in the workplace.

"The things that are the most difficult are the cultural issues," Gressang said.

The elements of language that staff and faculty most commonly request her to improve are pronunciation, vocabulary, and everyday conversation.

She explained that there are barriers in communication that are often taken for granted. For example, a teaching assistant may have adequate language skills, but may be from a country in which students do not participate in class or are not expected to ask questions during instruction.

Differences such as these are potentially detrimental to learning and instruction, so Gressang tries to lessen the disparities between language and culture.

"People have a certain amount where they can adapt, and you reach that certain point where you can't adapt anymore," she said. "But with a little change on everybody's part, it can work."

Despite the difficulty of her job, Gressang said, she relies on patience and quick learning skills.

"[The best part is] getting to meet people from all over the place," she said. "It's so fun to find out about their lives."


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