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Photo of the Earth from space.

One world, many voices

The U's Culture Corps brings us together

by Pauline Oo

From M, winter 2004

University of Minnesota senior Brijdeep Bhasin has lost count of the number of times he's been asked if there are cars in his country, whether everyone there bathes in cappuccino-colored rivers, and if dilapidated housing is commonplace. Bhasin, who is from India, used the Culture Corps program at the University's International Students and Scholars Services (ISSS) to chip away at the view some people have about life in his country.

"People only hear about India when there is a natural disaster, bomb blast, or an epidemic," says Bhasin, "and the same can be said about news from [other parts] of the world. While it's true that India is a poor country and you may even find people who bathe in rivers, what people here need to understand is that not all of India is like that."

University of Minnesota International student statistics (fall 2003)

Total student enrollment: 4,017

Graduate or professional school: 2,920

Undergraduate: 764

Non-degree seeking: 333

Source: Institutional Research and Reporting

Number of countries represented on the Twin Cities Campus: 120+

Students by country:
   China: 698
   India: 504
   Republic of Korea: 404

Countries represented by only one student: 26

Source: International Student and Scholar Services

The University started Culture Corps on the Twin Cities campus in 1998 to encourage the exchange of knowledge and experience between its international student body and its broader population. "We have students from around the world here, and we're not learning as much from them as they are from us," says Barbara Kappler, ISSS assistant director. "For instance, their countries have some of the same issues we face, such as migrant workers and sustainable development, and we could learn about the methods these other countries are using to try and solve those problems." International students receive financial aid for participating in a Culture Corps project. The semester-long projects can be nonacademic or related to classroom content, but they must pair the international student with a University faculty or staff member. "Usually a student will come to me with an idea of something they want to do, and I brainstorm with them about how they can connect [that desire] with a need at the University," says Culture Corps coordinator Thorunn Bjarnadottir. Bhasin worked with University Hindi professor Ravi Prasad on a six-week discussion series called Discovery of India. The goal, says Bhasin, was to encourage the University community "to explore the different possibilities India has to offer." Although students initiate most Culture Corps projects, faculty members have been known to approach Bjarnadottir with a plan. Patricia Mougel, director of French language instruction at the University, has invited two international students this fall--from Switzerland and French Guyana--to help with her class on current events in France. "These French speakers join our class discussions on topics such as education and politics," says Mougel, "and during those moments, they share their insights on living in France and of being from another francophone country." Last year, Culture Corps celebrated one of its greatest success stories. A group of international students, in collaboration with staff from the University's Institute for Social, Economic, and Ecological Sustainability, conceived and organized "Passport to Earth Summit 2002," an international conference on sustainable development that drew speakers from as far away as South Africa. One of the results was a case study by the nine students that analyzed sustainability issues at the University. The study earned a spot in the summer 2003 issue of the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education. While financial aid--either in the form of a tuition waiver or cash award--is certainly a draw to participate in Culture Corps, Bhasin says most international students gravitate towards the program simply because "we have something to share." For more info about Culture Corps, call 612-626-4799 or e-mail CultureC@umn.edu.

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