Cultivating Cross-Cultural Understanding Through International Education

Co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education, International Education Week is an opportunity to explore and showcase the benefits of international education and exchange in the U.S. and abroad. World Learning is celebrating all week long with stories about how international education has made a difference for our program participants from 162 countries worldwide. Today, we’re highlighting how international education fosters cross-cultural understanding.

As World Learning founder Donald Watt used to say, the best way to learn to live together is to live together. World Learning’s global development and exchange programs demonstrate the truth of that motto. We bring people together from across the world through programs that help develop mutual respect and understanding. Here are some of their stories:

U.S. Ambassador to India Ken Juster joined Communities Connecting Heritage participants to learn more about traditional Patachitra scroll painting in West Bengal.

Patachitra — a traditional Bengali artform in which vibrantly painted scrolls tell stories set to lilting melodies — is alive and well in Naya Village. This small community in West Bengal, India, is home to 400 scroll painters and singers.

This year, World Learning’s Communities Connecting Heritage program helped share the art of patachitra with audiences in Washington, DC. This exchange program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding by the U.S. government, paired the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage with Contact Base, an organization in West Bengal, India. Together, they collaborated on the Learning Together for a Brighter Future project, through which U.S. participants visited West Bengal to learn about patachitra and, in turn, welcomed Bengali artists to the U.S. capital to unveil a scroll they’d created telling the story of the National Mall.

Betty Belanus, curator and education specialist at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, coordinated the exchange from the U.S. side. In a story for Folklife magazine, she wrote about her experience in the exchange — including the moment during her visit to West Bengal that shattered her preconceptions:

“The group sang their version of a traditional Hindu story to the unrolling of a scroll, followed by a question-and-answer period through an interpreter. One of our group asked at what point in the tradition’s history the style of this artwork became fixed. This puzzled the group, since in their view, styles vary greatly from artist to artist. Five of them got up and partially unrolled scrolls that depicted the same story we had just heard, each in its own variation. While the story was still totally recognizable (the same song is sung to all of them), the visual stylistic differences were striking and delightful.

This was our ‘a-ha!’ moment. We suddenly saw the individual artists behind the tradition, not just a community who all do ‘the same thing’ in ‘the same style.’”

Read the full story about the international exchange — and watch a clip of an artist performing the story of the National Mall — on the Folklife website.

Global UGRAD’s take in the sights in Washington, DC.

Each year, the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program (Global UGRAD) welcomes undergraduate students from across the world to study at U.S. academic institutions for a semester. Global UGRAD students become part of the fabric of life at their host institutions, where they make friends, take classes, and volunteer in community service activities with U.S. students. They come away with a deeper understanding of U.S. culture and values. The program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. government and administered by World Learning.

Walter Gonzalez Baez, a 2018–19 Global UGRAD student from Nicaragua, wrote about his first impressions at the University of Southern Indiana for the Global Gazette:

“I have experienced that people create a strong sense of community in this part of the country. I have never experienced people’s happiness and friendship that much before. Everyone is so friendly here! Not only on campus, but also in the city you will see people smile and say ‘Hello!’ or ‘Hi!’ when they pass nearby someone else. This behavior is new for me since in my country if you say—‘Hola’ (Hello!) to someone you do not know, then you will sound weird. I really like this behavior people have toward others here.”

Turner Payne (left) chats with his “virtual” family in Iraq through the Digital Young Leaders Exchange Program (DYLEP).

Fifteen-year-old Turner Payne didn’t know much about the Middle East before last summer, and what he did know was from social media and TV news stories that portrayed the Middle East as a place of conflict, full of terror attacks and refugees.

That changed when Payne joined the Digital Young Leaders Exchange Program (DYLEP), a virtual exchange program run by World Learning that connects teenagers from the U.S. and Iraq, designed to help them develop leadership skills while fostering civic engagement and respect for diversity. Payne spent almost every day of the four-month program chatting online with Iraqi teenagers—his virtual “family”—learning about their culture and sharing his experiences with them.

Upon completing the program, he founded a digital video project called Binding Borders, featuring interviews with students from the Middle East and North Africa discussing how their cultures are perceived in the U.S.

“I learned through DYLEP about how rich the Middle East is and how many different cultures and religions it has,” Payne says. “My experience at DYLEP really opened my eyes to the many different stereotypes that existed in the U.S. about the Middle East. I wanted to come up with an idea that would address this problem.”

Learn more about Payne’s story and Binding Borders here.

As a 2018 group leader for The Experiment in International Living, Ebony Hargro joined her students in their culinary classes at the Institut Paul Bocuse.

Ebony Hargro has always loved learning about other cultures. In 2016, when she was an undergraduate student at Duke University, Hargro studied abroad through the SIT Study Abroad Switzerland: International Relations and Multilateral Diplomacy program. This program is offered by World Learning’s sister organization, School for International Training.

The program not only brought her into the same room as decision-makers from the United Nations and other major global organizations, but she also had the opportunity to discover her host country’s culture. For one of her school assignments, Hargro interviewed Swiss natives about their country’s policy of neutrality during times of global conflict. She came away with a deeper connection to the country.

“Learning more about how the locals interpret neutrality was really interesting,” she says. “They had perspectives I had never been exposed to, so, while I didn’t necessarily agree with them, it did widen my understanding of what Switzerland is all about.”

Hargro’s experience with SIT Study Abroad was so positive that she ventured abroad again with another World Learning Inc. program shortly thereafter. In 2018, Hargro served as an adult group leader for The Experiment in International Living’s France: French Language and Culinary Training program. There, she offered guidance and support to high school students as they developed their own connections with their host country. “I really do believe in the abroad experience,” Hargro says. “I would encourage everyone who has even a remote interest in it, because there’s a lot of growth that happens.”



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