International students share their cultures with Kids on Campus
July 21, 2006
By Mary Reed
When Indu Sharma stood up in the front of the classroom in Grover Center on Friday, her flowing gold and white outfit, sparkling jewelry, waist-length black hair and lilting accent earned her some admirers right away. "Wowsers!" "Whoa!" "She looks like a princess!"
Her admirers? A group of 5- to 7-year-olds participating in this summer's Kids on Campus program. The six-week program provides 325 Athens County children ages 5 to 15 with educational activities, meals and recreation on the Ohio University campus.
Sharma, a master's student in international affairs from India, was serving as a "cultural consultant" by sharing her family stories, clothing, jewelry, music and dance with her young audience. She was one of eight visitors from Asia, Africa and Latin America, all here thanks to the Ohio Valley International Council, the outreach arm of Ohio University's Center for International Studies.
The questions were as numerous as the bracelets on Sharma's arm in her family photo projected on a classroom screen. But the most common question was, "What is it?"
"This is a tender age. They are in the learning stage," Sharma said of her new American friends. She fielded questions about family and language, but also about more serious topics like crime and war. "It's our duty to tell the truth in a sensitive way."
Sharma understands that it can be difficult to understand a culture that is not your own. She thought she knew American culture pretty well from television and movies -- that is, before she arrived here. "If you don't understand another culture, you are ignorant and you don't know how to behave. TV is not the guarantee that you will know the culture correctly."
Sharma demonstrated how to wrap a sari, a traditional Indian garment, on Destiny Tabler, 7. Sharma took 20 feet of fabric and managed to wrap it elegantly around a little girl's frame. "She's magic!"
"I liked her hair and the way she laughed" Tabler said afterward. Then Sharma wrapped her own long hair into a bun and secured it with a decorative pin. "Me next!" the onlookers called.
The kids learned the Indian word for hello and goodbye -- "namaste" -- before meeting their next international guest, Raweerwatch "Rainy" Phrompechrut (now say that three times fast). Phrompechrut, a junior journalism major at Ohio University, is from Thailand. She follows in the footsteps of her two older brothers, who also attended Ohio University. Before coming to Athens, Phrompechrut got a taste of America as a high school exchange student in Texas.
"(The cultural ambassadors program) is great because in the educational system here you don't have the opportunity to learn about different cultures – or even different geographies," she said, but added "I think that people are very interested about other cultures and are very open to learning about other cultures. I think that's great."
Phrompechrut showed the youngsters pictures of her homeland, each one bringing excited commentary from the children. There were Buddhist temples ("What's a monk?"), sandy beaches ("Pirates!") and the Thai new year festival. Held during the hottest month of the year, the festival is pretty much one giant water fight. ("I've got a super soaker!") Then she described Thailand's monarchy, guiding everyone on how to properly bow to the king ("I wish I was the king").
If there's one thing 7-year-olds can do well, it's listen and repeat new words. The students learned how to say hello in Thai ("sawatdee") and then repeated perfectly Rainy's given name, Raweerwatch. Twice.
Phrompechrut was excited to be a part of the cultural education program. "People in the U.S. think the world consists of the U.S. -- but I think that's changing because of globalization," she said. "I think that the world is becoming so much smaller -- the world is flat, as (New York Times columnist and author) Thomas Friedman said -- it's giving people more options. Now you can grow up in one country and choose to live anywhere."
The cultural ambassadors program is one of many that carries out the Vision OHIO goal of creating and expanding partnerships that serve the region, state, nation and world. "Not only does this program highlight the university's commitment to diversity, it also supports learning beyond the classroom environment and contributes to the building of partnerships that benefit the community and the region," said Jennifer Cochran, assistant director for communication and graduate programming at Ohio University's Center for International Studies.
"The children have the opportunity to meet people who would not otherwise be part of their worlds," Cochran continued. "It's (also) a fun and educational experience for international students who enjoy interacting with the children and getting to know more about the community beyond the university walls. It's a great opportunity for them to learn a little about Appalachian culture, so the learning really goes both ways."
Kids on Campus treats Athens County children to a summer of nonstop fun. And wouldn't you know it, quite a bit of education seeps in there as well. "I liked everything," Derek Bendervich, 7, said of the day's events.
Phrompechrut echoed the sentiments that everyone involved in the cultural exchange benefits educationally and culturally. "And aside from that serious stuff," she concluded, "it's fun."
Mary Reed is a writer with University Communications and Marketing.