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Intercultural floor educates students

Lauren Lavelle | Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Saint Mary’s students don’t need to travel far for an intercultural experience. In fact, they don’t even need to leave campus.

The Intercultural Living Community (ILC) on the fourth floor in North Regina Hall gives students the opportunity to experience ethnic and cultural diversity in their everyday lives.

The Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership (CWIL) began the program three years ago in an effort to promote awareness of cultural diversity on Saint Mary’s campus, ILC program director Tracy Robison said.

“The program gives students an opportunity to learn more about their peers, as well as learning more about themselves,” she said. “It provides an environment for students who know that this is something they want to know more about and want to have it supported outside the classroom.”

Robison said the residents on the floor represent a variety of ethnic, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds.

“This year there are about 20 residents, and that number tends to be the average,” Robison said. “Some years it is a little bit higher, but this semester I think we have right around 20 residents.”

While Robison said she would encourage all Saint Mary’s students to live in the ILC, hopeful residents must complete an application process. The application requires students to write an essay explaining why they are interested in living on the floor. Students are also required to provide two character references and must be in good academic and residential standing.

The ideal candidate for the program would be a student who is open to learning about diversity on Saint Mary’s campus, Robison said.

“I am looking for a person who is excited about this opportunity, who has an interest in intercultural issues,” she said. “I also look for someone who is open to learning new things, as well as is open to sharing about themselves.”

Once accepted into the community, students are encouraged to participate in program-sponsored events. Events usually include retreats, an annual trip to Chicago and discussion groups about current world issues, Robison said.

“We also do fun things like go to the pottery place and do an art project, and in the past we have done cultural dances,” she said. “I think that learning needs to be interesting and fun.”

Many residents say the events, which are partially subsidized by CWIL, are not only valuable in understanding different cultures but make living on the floor exciting. The floor’s Residential Advisor, Mary Anne Schell, said being on the floor allows her to plan more activities around diversity – whether it be cultural, racial, religious or socio-economic.

“On this floor, there are a lot more people who are receptive to those activities,” Schell said. “It’s always exciting and eye-opening.”

Saint Mary’s senior Tanushree Bera lived in the community for two years and said floor-sponsored events were the best part about the program.

“They always do special things like take trips to see plays and eat at unique restaurants. Almost all of the activities have a cultural theme,” Bera said. “The things we did together were a lot of fun.”

Residents learn about cultural diversity not only through program activities, but also by simply living with one another.

“I wanted a different living experience from the rest of campus. I thought the floor would be more mixed as far as of people with different cultures,” sophomore resident Kimberly Hodges said. “I wanted to learn about those different cultures on my own, so I figured this would be a good floor to live on.”

Like Hodges, resident Zanna Afanasjeva said she values having people from different cultures as her neighbors. Native to Latvia, Afanasjeva is a junior at the College and has spent two years as a resident in the Intercultural Living Community. Afanasjeva said she enjoys living on the floor so she can not only learn about other people’s cultures, but share her own experiences.

“My favorite thing is just having different people around me from different backgrounds,” she said. “Last year, I just made a lot of friends, and some of us still live together.”

Both Hodges and Afanasjeva said they recommend living in the Intercultural Living Community to all Saint Mary’s students. Hodges said while you can’t force people to live on the floor, she thinks all students could benefit from the experience. Afanasjeva said she recommends the program because it allows students who have never been exposed to diverse backgrounds to learn how to live with people who may be different from them.

“A lot of people are interested now going into something to do with other countries, like international business, and I think it would really benefit them,” Afanasjeva said. “Meeting other people and doing these activities also helps you get to know yourself and who you are.”

Despite positive word of mouth advertisement from the students who live in the ILC, Robison said the most difficult aspect of her job is raising awareness and interest about the program. Advertising the living community in a way that will grab students’ attention is hard, she said.

“One of the most difficult things is getting the word out,” Robison said. “I know there are still several students who don’t know about it, and I am trying to learn how to advertise in a way that these students will pay attention.”

Afanasjeva also said she thinks the program needs an increase in advertisement and awareness about the benefits to living on the floor.

“I think we need to improve the marketing of this program because I don’t think that most people know it exists,” Afanasjeva said. “It is a good opportunity for people to learn a lot of things about culture. It is one thing to have a class, but it is another to actually meet people who come from a different background.”

Robison said it is also difficult to dispel the misconception that floor is only for students of color. In the past, Robison said, the majority of program participants have actually been Caucasian.

“The program is open to all students who are curious and want to know more about other cultures and about their own culture, because everyone has a culture,” she said.

As for the future of the program, both residents and Robison said with stronger advertising and promotion, they hope more students will capitalize on the opportunity. Robison hopes to eventually expand the program to several floors in Regina Hall.

“At most other schools and universities, international students and American students don’t even live in the same building,” Robison said. “Here at Saint Mary’s, international students and American students can live together. And that is a unique opportunity.”