At Crossroads, door open to allCrossroads International Student Center, at 5621 S. Blackstone Ave., is a "home away from home" for many international students and their spouses. It also serves as a forum for cross-cultural exchange between Americans and internationals.
"People often get the idea from our name -- 'International Student Center' -- that you have to be a student or you have to be an international to stop by or participate in our events. That's a notion I'd like to dispel," said Melanie Hamblin, Deputy Director of Crossroads. "This is a place where people from all nations can meet in a comfortable environment and get to know each other, socialize, share food and participate in discussions that lead to insights. Through getting to know people from other countries, the Americans who come here also gain a greater understanding of the different cultures that make up America."
Open Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., in addition to evening and weekend hours for special events and scheduled classes, the nonresidential center offers three levels of English classes, as well as foreign-language classes (French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, German, Russian, Finnish, Japanese and Mandarin), a weekly discussion group and special events ranging from cooking demonstrations and theme dinners to excursions in Chicago and beyond.
Crossroads also sponsors regular events at 7 p.m. on the first three Fridays of every month. On the first Friday of the month, Crossroads sponsors Tertulia, a Spanish-language social. On the second Friday of the month, Crossroads holds its European Cafe, which features coffee, tea, wine, pastries and opportunities for conversation. The fee is $3. On the third Friday of each month, the center holds its Russian Tea. All events are open to the public.
Junko Matozaki, from Japan, is a frequent Crossroads visitor. "I came to Chicago in August -- my husband is a business student at the University of Chicago -- and I come to Crossroads twice a week to work on my English," she said. Before coming to Chicago, Matozaki worked as an editor in Japan, reluctantly leaving that job behind when she followed her husband to the United States.
"At first I didn't have anything to do, and I was so depressed," she said. Then staff members at the Graduate School of Business told her about Crossroads, and she began coming to the center. "This center is very important to me spiritually," she said. "A building can be just made of concrete and steel, but this place is so much more. It's a real home to me."
Matozaki said that before she came to the United States, she had developed an interest in how women around the world live, how they work and how they are treated in their societies. "I can share this kind of knowledge here with people from around the world. I really enjoy that."
Many of the people who come to Crossroads are women, spouses of men who have come to this country to go to school or to work, Hamblin said. "Often these women were professionals or students in their home countries, but here they sometimes are unable to work -- they may have poor skills in English -- and they may not have a way to meet other people." She said that Crossroads provides them with opportunities to socialize, improve their English and explore the surrounding community.
"The retention rate for married students is directly related to how happy the students' spouses are. Businesses and schools need to be more aware of that," she said.
Crossroads was established 43 years ago, and until 1992 it was run on a volunteer basis by its founders, Louise "Teddy" Gerardy and Denyse Snyers. When these two women retired, a paid professional staff was hired to run the center.
"We're at an important point in the organization's history," Hamblin said. "We're drawing on the built-up reserves right now, but we are going to have to raise more money to keep the center going."
She said it sometimes is difficult to convince Americans that there is value in funding something that primarily serves internationals.
"By increasing understanding among people of different cultures, Crossroads has an impact beyond just the individuals at hand," she said. "A lot of the international graduate students at the University are here because they are at the very tops of their fields -- these are the people who will go back to their countries and be leaders. The kind of experience they have here matters."
At noon on a recent Wednesday, Crossroads was abuzz with conversation: English and other languages intermingled in a complex cacophony as 17 women -- from Japan, China, Venezuela, Belgium, Ukraine and Taiwan -- gathered in the living room of the center for a two-hour advanced-English discussion group.
Noriko Amaki, from Japan, led the day's discussion about the history, religion and culture of Japan. First, she asked everyone in the room for their preconceptions about Japan. The responses -- punctuated with laughter and sometimes spoken in halting English -- ranged from "Japanese people are very polite" and "Japanese women are very beautiful" to "I hate sushi" and "It is a very wealthy country." Amaki then talked about her country and its customs, with the group members exchanging information about their own countries' customs as well.
From week to week, the discussion topics vary, ranging from race relations and gender issues to cultural affairs and politics.
"It's an informal opportunity for people to get together and talk about cross-cultural issues, as well as practice English in a nonstructured setting," Hamblin said.
The opportunity is much appreciated, said Pin He, who is from China. "Even though we can't speak English very well, the staff of Crossroads treats us very well, so I feel comfortable here," she said. "Crossroads is just like family."
The next Crossroads event is the European Cafe at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 9. For other upcoming Crossroads activities, see the Calendar, pages 6-8. For more information, call 684-6060.
-- Diana Steele