March 15, 2006
By Jennifer Cochran
A group of children sit on stools in a semi-circle waiting for one of their visitors to speak. "Hello. My name is Selam. In Arabic my name means hello and also peace," Selam Tesfai tells the children in the Kids on Campus after-school program at West Elementary. An Ohio University graduate student from Eritrea in Africa, Tesfai is part of a project providing international education to children at six Athens County elementary schools through the Ohio Valley International Council (OVIC).
"Cool!" the kids chorus as Ghassan Siddiq, a graduate student from Sudan, writes his name in Arabic on the blackboard. They begin to call out words and watch intently as he puts chalk to the board, writing those words from right to left in his native language.
Later they concentrate intently, ready to spring to their feet and give chase as they play a Ghanaian game much like the familiar duck-duck-goose. Cynthia Kyei, a graduate assistant for OVIC who comes from Ghana, leads the children in a chant in Twi—her mother tongue—as one child circles behind his classmates.
OVIC has partnered with Kids on Campus (KOC) to provide international outreach and education to kids at six Athens County elementary schools. International students and students with international experience such as the Peace Corps visit the schools in small groups. Thirteen students from 11 countries in Africa, Latin America, Asia, the Caribbean, and the United States are participating in the project this quarter. The students use maps, pictures, dolls, clothing, musical instruments and other objects to help bring to life the cultures and countries they represent.
Interacting with international students makes the children feel special and helps give them more global awareness, according to Marilyn Wentworth, assistant director of Kids on Campus. "It opens their eyes to the possibility that they could go there some day," she observes.
"How often do kids in the region get to spend time getting to know people from other countries in a relaxed after-school setting?" asked Laura Schaeffer, director of outreach for the Center for International Studies. She hopes that these interactions between international students and local school children will build global understanding within the local community and beyond. "Global dialogue is essential for a peaceful world," said Schaeffer.
Siddiq was initially hesitant to get involved with the outreach project because he had never worked with children before and didn't know how the kids would perceive him. He soon overcame his hesitation and found a great sense of enjoyment sharing his culture with a younger generation. "I was excited to let them know something about Africa," he says. Siddiq beams as he shows off a thank you card he received from children at Amesville Elementary. One student signed her name in Arabic, as she learned from Siddiq.
Leslie Moss, executive director of Kids on Campus, believes the project represents an opportunity to address diversity issues with the children in the after-school programs. "We want to encourage the kids to be accepting of all people," she explains.
From Albany to Amesville and Chauncey to Coolville, the area schoolchildren have welcomed their visitors with enthusiasm. "One girl came in bowing because she wanted to respect me," Tesfai recalls. "They're very interested, excited and inquisitive.... They want to learn."
The elementary school children are not the only ones learning from this project. Some of the Ohio University students are earning academic credit for their participation through an international studies practicum designed to give students training and experience in community outreach. Laura Schaeffer leads the practicum. "Many students at OU don't have a chance to explore the region of Southeast Ohio," she explains. "This is an excellent way for them to have that experience and to break down stereotypes."
This project is helping to break down stereotypes for area kids and for the international students involved. Her work with children in southeastern Ohio schools has helped Cynthia Kyei overcome stereotypes that she had formed about the United States. "You think it's the land of plenty…" she says, explaining that she now realizes that the U.S. is like other countries where some people are rich and some people are poor. She has also observed characteristics that her culture in Ghana has in common with that of the U.S. such as respect for elders. Kyei has enjoyed seeing places outside Athens and appreciates the opportunity to learn new skills. "Now I'm not too shy to stand in front of a group," she says. "I've learned a lot."
Through her interactions with local schoolchildren Selam Tesfai has also learned more about U.S. culture. "The students are very open," she observes. "In my country you are told to keep quiet and not speak, but here you are so free. I learned from them to be more open and to speak up."
Tesfai and her companions are sometimes surprised by the questions the children ask that illustrate stereotypical images of Africa. "They associate Africa with animals," she says. She and her fellow presenters hope that the children will learn to think of more than safari animals when they think of Africa. When asked how they bathe in Eritrea, she explains that she comes from the city where they have hot running water and that she bathes the same way people do here in the U.S.
Cat Cutcher, a doctoral student in cultural studies who has traveled and studied in Kenya and Southern Africa, uses props to engage students and broaden their understanding of Africa. She illustrates the diversity of the African continent by sharing her collection of dolls from different African nations. She explains to the children that Africa is a continent with 54 countries and more than 2,000 languages.
Housed in the Center for International Studies, the Ohio Valley International Council is a liaison between Ohio University and the regional community. The council coordinates innovative programs that draw on the university's international resources to help public school teachers and students, community groups and business organizations increase their knowledge and understanding of different cultures and global issues. The center also circulates learning kits and curriculum materials throughout the region and offers teacher workshops on a variety of topics.
Jennifer Cochran is the assistant director for communication and graduate programming at the Center for International Studies.