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An Asian student addressing a group of people.

"Around the World" panel members Jingqing Liu (right) and Sami Abdel-Kerim.

Globe-trotting at the U

By Pauline Oo

March 31, 2006

If a civil war had not broken out in his country, Mabima Kiawu doubts he would have come to the United States. The University of Minnesota senior left the West African nation of Liberia in 1999, minus everyone and everything he knew.

"I had to run for my life," says Kiawu. "Coming here wasn't a choice for me." And in the years that followed, life would be an emotional rollercoaster because his family was lost to him. Kiawu was one of the five panel members in "Around the World in 120 minutes," a discussion hosted this week by the U's Office of International Student and Scholar Services and the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence. The event is one way the U is internationalizing itself, a goal that's part of becoming one of the world's top three public research universities.

Kiawu eventually found his family. He also earned a scholarship to study biochemistry at the U, became actively involved in numerous student organizations, made new friends and fraternity brothers, and found part-time work to make some money that he could send home. Yet, behind his eager smile and friendly nature, demons haunt Kiawu. His brother was murdered in Liberia for money Kiawu had sent him.

Unlike Kiawu, the other panelists did not offer tales of personal tragedies. But like Kiawu, they engaged the 30 people--mostly faculty and staff--who attended the event with stories and observations about being an international or multicultural student in the United States. (The U defines multicultural as being strongly influenced by or having prominent characteristics of several cultural groups.)

"This workshop is designed to create an opportunity for dialogue with students, thus helping faculty and staff better understand the University's international and multicultural communities," says Tammy Mazure of the U's Office of International Student and Scholar Services. As of fall 2005, the Twin Cities campus had 3,384 international students from 124 countries, with 2,934 of them in graduate or professional schools. "We hope participants will learn specific strategies for developing supportive environments in meetings, classrooms, and support settings," adds Mazure.

For example, don't just tell me how poor my English is, says Jingqing Liu, a graduate student from China. "[When I turn in a paper,] comment on the content."

Quotes from panel members

Jingqing Liu
"You will never be offensive as long as your intentions are true."

Gemma Punti
"When you go abroad, you have to leave your heart back home."

"Just to listen to another language [especially when you are first learning it] is hard. At the end of the day [you] just want to die."

"If you expect [the country or culture you're visiting] to be just like back home, you're going to be disappointed. You need to be open and flexible."

Alan Roy
"There is no one way of seeing things."

Sami Abdel-Kerim
"My father came to Minnesota in March [and decided to stay] because the weather was very deceiving."

"If [a professor] is going to [include] the words 'franks' or 'salami' on a test, he or she should explain them or say 'processed meats.' Some students don't know those words [and they cannot] be graded fairly on that knowledge."

Liu and fellow graduate student Gemma Punti, from Spain, have had to learn English as a second language to thrive as students in the United States and earn the respect of those who speak the language fluently. Both are outspoken and gregarious but have accents that can peg them as foreigners.

"An accent doesn't equal stupidity," says Kiawu. "People thought I was stupid because of my accent. So in high school I wrote a paper and a lot of my classmates read it--it was about how accents don't equal stupidity."

Accents and the English language have never been a problem for Sami Abdel-Kerim. The University student with Egyptian ancestry was born and raised in northeast Minneapolis. But she says she has often been mistaken for an Arab and that some people are not willing to speak to her because "they're afraid I don't speak English or they think I'm a terrorist." Additionally, she is stigmatized and has seen her circle of friends dwindle because of her hijab or headscarf.

Abdel-Kerim has donned the headscarf--a tradition among some Muslim women--since her sophomore year. "None of my friends from freshman year recognize me, or even say hi anymore," she says. "The sales people don't approach me to ask if I need help, even when I've been to their store 20 times before. I've become invisible."

The hijab, she explains, is a statement of beauty. "It conceals your hair from men who you can potentially marry, and that's why Muslim women may also wear looser and longer clothing," says Abdel-Kerim. "[The belief is that] the beauty is for yourself and your husband. You don't publicize it and it prevents you from committing a sin or having premarital sex."

When the panel was asked what international and multicultural students wish others knew about their cultures, the majority response was: we're civilized and not homogenous--there is diversity even within our umbrella culture.

Upcoming events

"South Asian Community Seminar"
Tuesday, April 4, 9-11 a.m.
110 Heller Hall
Learn facts about South Asia, including societal norms and the experiences of South Asian students on the U's campus.

"Hmong Culture"
Tuesday, April 25, 9-11 a.m.
110 Walter Library
Learn about Hmong traditions and family expectations and what you can do to assist Hmong students as they pursue their college career on the Twin Cities campus.

Register for one or both sessions at the International Student and Scholar Services.

"[American Indians] do not worship lands, rocks, and trees--we respect them," says Alan Roy, a University senior from the Ojibwa tribe. "We are also not one people, but we have many tribes, languages, and nations. There are over 500 American Indian tribes."

And the same can be said of Spain, says Punti. All 17 regions in Spain have very distinct cultures--varying in terms of local language and pastimes, as well as traditional food and music. "I don't expect people to know that I have never seen a bullfight or danced flamenco," says Punti, who hails from Catalonia in northeastern Spain. "But I expect people to know that I am not Mexican just because I speak Spanish."

One of the best ways to educate yourself about another culture or country is to talk to someone from that culture or land, advises Liu. Don't rely on the media, she says. "The American media [for example] has a lot of local and national news but very little international news."