The Iowa International Center was formed by a group of volunteers to assist immigrants fleeing the war in Europe. In 1941, the Center partnered with a group of community organizations to sponsor a Panamanian student’s trip to Iowa -a venture that led to the formation of the Pan American Board of Education. In the 1940s, this organization sponsored 150 college students from Panama and changed its name to the Iowa Children’s Institute of Language and Culture. Elinor Robson was hired as director.


In the 1950s, the leaders of the Children’s Institute decided that building a cultural and international awareness was a task that needed a broader objective, and again, they changed the name of the organization to the Boards of International Education (BIE). Throughout the 1960s the name changed to the Des Moines Area Council for International Understanding. The council’s translation service became actively engaged in both emergencies and business work. In 1976, the Council joined the National Council for International visitors (now called Global Ties), placing it, for the first time, in a national network of agencies to receive and schedule international visitors form the United States information agency.  Over thousands of emerging international leaders and industry professionals have visited Iowa through this program.


 In 1978, Thomas Grouling hired to be Executive Director and served the Council until June 1992. The name Iowa Council for International Understanding was adopted by the Board in December, 1992. Dr. Judy Conlin served as Executive Director of the Iowa International Center from 2008 until January 2017.  Patricia Grote is the the current Executive Director for the Iowa International Center. In August 2011, the Iowa Council for International Understanding changed its name to the Iowa International Center to better capture and describe the scope of its services and programs. The organization has resided in several locations around Des Moines, and is currently in the Merle Hay Mart building located across from Merle Hay Mall.


Throughout the organization’s history, the many volunteers who provided leadership and time to the organization always believed the Center should be dedicated to international understanding between Iowans and the rest of the world.


Some of the Iowa International Center’s recent notable achievements  have included:

  • In the past 18 months, 120 refugees and immigrants participated in our Accessible ESL classes, working to improve their English reading and writing skills with the help of professional, paid ESL instructors.
  • In the past 18 months, the average English assessment scores of adult students participating in our Accessible ESL classes increased by 45%.
  • In the past year, we realized a 95% increase in page views for our Welcome to Iowa web site – a clearinghouse of critical information for refugees and immigrants, provided in 80 languages online.
  • In the past year, more than 3,000 appointments were scheduled for our network of more than 150 trained interpreters, who served an estimated 6,000 Iowans with language services – a dramatic increase over last year, which reflects the growing diversity of our community in the past few years.
  • In the past year, we’ve seen an approximate 100% increase in the usage of our Free 24/7 Emergency Interpretation Hotline, as it helped service agencies and first responders to assist Limited English speakers throughout the state of Iowa.
  • In the past year, 244 regional community and business leaders in central Iowa were engaged with emerging leaders from around the world for mutual economic and cultural benefit.
  • In the past year, 55 volunteers welcomed our international program participants into their homes to experience warm Iowa hospitality.
  • Over the past year, an estimated 500 audience members attended free Iowa International Center Dialogue Series programs, to learn more about cultural, social and political issues affecting the international community in Iowa.
  • In the past two years, two International Women of Courage Awardees – selected by the U.S. Department of State and recognized by First Lady Michelle Obama – were guests of the Sehgal Foundation International Visitors Center. Only ten of 92 organizations similar to IIC in the U.S. are selected to participate in this program annually.
  • 137 emerging global leaders representing 64 countries participated in our International Visitor Leadership and Community Connections Programs in the last 12 months.
  • In the past year and a half, more than $240,000 in funds was given by generous corporate and individual donors over the past year and a half to support the Ray Resource Initiative.
  • 275 culturally-savvy members of our diverse community attended the inspiring Passport to Prosperity celebration in September 2014 – a record-setting event that raised more than $65,000 for our organization’s ongoing work. 
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