Tanya Tandon is Indian, Nigerian and West Virginian.
For those with a scorecard handy, Tandon was born in India. She moved to Nigeria at age 8 when her father accepted a telecommunications job there. She spent the remaining days of her youth in the African country before landing in Morgantown in 2008 to study economics at West Virginia University.
That’s three continents in 20 years – quite a mark for even a seasoned globetrotter.
Imagine how youngsters who’ve never ventured outside the Tri-State area must feel when doused with a dose of international flavor.
Tandon has shared her global experiences with University High School students through a collaborative program between the WVU President’s Office for Social Justice and the UHS Library. Called the Global Culture Series, members of the Mountaineer community have visited UHS classrooms since 2008 to discuss their home countries and cultural upbringings.
In early November, Tandon enlightened high school students about India, though she could have just as well offered insight on Nigeria or even Morgantown.
UHS students seemed mostly enthralled by Indian customs such as prearranged marriages, Tandon recalled.
“The concept to them is so foreign,” she said.
Click to hear WVU student Tanya Tandon talk about Indian culture.
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The Global Culture Series is one piece of the “Building an Inclusive Community” partnership, created by WVU, the City of Morgantown and the Monongalia County School System. Its purpose is to enhance cultural diversity in Morgantown and pique the global interests of high school students.
The Series began when then-UHS librarian Barbara White reached out to WVU to see if any students could address global diversity to high schoolers.
“She called and asked if we could help students at UHS better appreciate the value of global diversity,” said Jennifer McIntosh, executive officer in the President’s Office for Social Justice. “We thought about it and designed this program. It’s given high school students a chance to interact with real people from other countries.”
More than 1,300 international students from 100 countries attend WVU. Outside of the University community, only 1 percent of West Virginia’s population is foreign-born, compared to 12 percent for the nation. Therefore, any interaction between West Virginia youth and international folks can be scarce.
McIntosh herself has visited the high school to present. A native of Jamaica, McIntosh moved to the United States in 1958. She was 10.
For her presentation, McIntosh brought in ginger beer, a nonalcoholic soft drink flavored with ginger and sweetened with sugar that is a staple of Jamaica.
McIntosh also gave a crash course on her home country – the food, music, language, history, flag, and, perhaps what Jamaica is most noted for, Bob Marley.
“I gave them a real Jamaican experience,” she said. “What we’re really doing is opening up their eyes to different cultures. We all come from different places and we bring these cultures with us.”
The Series is a hit with the high school audience, thanks largely to the in-person interaction. Students aren’t learning about different parts of the world through textbooks, videos or secondhand word of mouth. They’re talking to people who’ve lived the international experience.
“Students who are 14, 15 and 16 – they are very energizing,” McIntosh said. “They’re curious and they ask invigorating questions.”
This year, at least seven WVU students from Bulgaria, Turkey, India, Cameroon, Germany, Australia and Nigeria are presenting. Students volunteer and there is never a shortage, McIntosh said.
The program also serves multiple goals of the University’s 2020 Strategic Plan for the Future. “It covers diversity and outreach,” McIntosh said. “It covers a very broad spectrum. That’s what we’re about as an institution.”
Ellen Rodrigues, a graduate assistant in the President’s Office for Social Justice, coordinates the Global Culture Series and has given five presentations on her native Brazil.
Rodrigues came to WVU through an exchange program. She earned a bachelor’s degree in law in Brazil and later got her master’s degree in sociology at WVU. She’s now working on her doctorate here in political science.
Click to hear WVU student Ellen Rodrigues discuss how the Global Culture Series benefits high school students.
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Rodrigues shares stories of her country’s economy, politics, culture, food, festivals and sports.
Both Tandon and Rodrigues expressed that family structure seems much stronger in their home countries. They called the U.S. more “individualistic.”
In Indian culture, family friends may be considered part of the “family.”
“You would call your friend’s dad ‘uncle,’” Tandon said. “It’s respectful to refer to your elders by certain words. Over here, you can call your professors and coworkers by their first name.”
When Rodrigues pictures her family, she includes everyone from cousins to uncles.
“It’s not just my parents and siblings,” she said. “Everyone has a voice in my life. I’m like a daughter of everybody.”
International-born Mountaineers aren’t the only ones giving a global lesson to UHS students.
Allie Wildstein, a senior journalism student from Philadelphia, spoke to high schoolers about her “most life-changing experience,” a semester studying in Barcelona, Spain.
Wildstein said her studies abroad opened her mind.
“We value time and money,” she said. “They’re not as concerned about those things. They value family time more.
“Everyone here is in a rush to do the next thing. There, they take a siesta and nap in the middle of the day,” she said. “All of Europe does it. They close up at 2, go home, have lunch, take a nap and go back to work at 6. Here, Wall Street doesn’t close down for a nap time.”
Providing that kind of perspective to local high school students is just the kind of town-gown connection that benefits and strengthens both.
Click to hear WVU student Allie Wildstein explain how studying abroad in Europe changed her life.
[ Click to download ]
“It’s great for our high school students because it connects them to WVU and opens their eyes to studying abroad and seeing the world, even if they decide to stay in Morgantown at WVU,” said Becki Lenhart, UHS library media specialist, who helps coordinate the Global Culture Series. “They didn’t want some of the presentations to end. They could’ve spent a few class periods listening to them.”
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