University of Wisconsin-Whitewater international student Naomi Fultang speaks with Washington Elementary fourth-grade students about culture in her native Cameroon, and in Whitewater and southern Wisconsin. (Ryan Spoehr photo)

By Ryan Spoehr

Students at Washington Elementary and international students attending the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater recently took time out of their days to meet, chat and tell stories of each other’s cultures.

On March 15, Washington Elementary students participated in a field trip to meet with UW-Whitewater international students. The fourth-graders were prompted to take items with them from home and explain their significance in a group setting at the Andersen Library.

One youngster brought a stuffed monkey. Another took a bracelet that his mother gave him. Another talked about a nutcracker.

“This project allows our students to be the experts in the classroom as they share something that others in the audience do not know,” said Rossi Ivanova, an assistant professor in languages and literature at the university. “The audience, the fourth-graders and their teachers, and perhaps the students’ parents, could truly learn from what our students have to say.”

Discussions developed about American customs, such as Christmas and New Year’s.

“We hope the cultural exchange helps our students feel valued and included in the community,” Ivanova said. “Oftentimes, international students do not have any contacts or connections to the local community and may feel isolated or unwelcomed.

“This shows our students that they bring value to the community and that their different cultural backgrounds are important.”

This was the first time the elementary school and the university had done something of this sort. It was done through a community-based learning grant administered by UW-W’s School of Graduate Studies and Continuing Education.

“We hope that our students feel empowered,” Ivanova said. “For example, through the project, we give them the opportunity to be like mentors for the younger students, and to present their cultures and their differences in a positive way.

“Also, as international students, our students constantly have to adapt to what the U.S. culture requires, they have to follow U.S. academic and cultural models, etc., for success here. It can be quite draining and disempowering for our students to constantly adapt to something new, to constantly follow U.S. models and to be catching up with local standards.”

The event gave the university’s international students a chance to further develop their English language skills.

“Our students also develop speaking confidence as they practice their English in a receptive, nonthreatening and authentic environment rather than always in a classroom,” Ivanova said.

The hope is that events like this become an annual or semiannual event in the community.

“We hope that we could do something similar every year or every other year, depending on the interest, curriculum and schedules of our school partners and on funding,” Ivanova said.

The event was in preparation for Thursday’s appearance by Wisconsin poet laureate Karla Huston at Laurentide Hall in the third floor living room area at the university. Poems of place and identity from the project between the international students and the fourth-graders will be displayed. The event will start at 5 p.m.

Huston will read her poetry and speak about some of her projects and experiences as the poet laureate.

Refreshments will be served. People may RSVP to the event by emailing, but it is not required.


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