Building Student Engagement by Celebrating Culture

06.26_building-student-engagement-by-celebrating-culture

Like many of our peers, we are fortunate to work at an institution serving individuals from different ethnicities, nationalities, and cultural backgrounds. In this regard, many of us work on campuses with large international populations coming from all parts of the world. Such students bring unique perspectives, experiences, and knowledge, contributing to the richness of the academic environment. But international students themselves often face huge hurdles to success; being away from loved ones and familiar surroundings can cause them to feel an undue amount of stress that their domestic counterparts do not face. Beyond this, they may experience language barriers, culture shock, and difficulties in adapting to new academic and social environments (Smith & Khawaja, 2011). To address these issues, universities often provide support services to help international students overcome these challenges and thrive in their academic pursuits. In this article, we’ll focus on one unique type of service: offering cultural events to decrease student stress in the classroom and increase engagement with faculty and other students.


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Like many of our peers, we are fortunate to work at an institution serving individuals from different ethnicities, nationalities, and cultural backgrounds. In this regard, many of us work on campuses with large international populations coming from all parts of the world. Such students bring unique perspectives, experiences, and knowledge, contributing to the richness of the academic environment. But international students themselves often face huge hurdles to success; being away from loved ones and familiar surroundings can cause them to feel an undue amount of stress that their domestic counterparts do not face. Beyond this, they may experience language barriers, culture shock, and difficulties in adapting to new academic and social environments (Smith & Khawaja, 2011). To address these issues, universities often provide support services to help international students overcome these challenges and thrive in their academic pursuits. In this article, we’ll focus on one unique type of service: offering cultural events to decrease student stress in the classroom and increase engagement with faculty and other students.

Being away from home and experiencing a new culture can be overwhelming, and cultural events provide a sense of familiarity and comfort to ease some of the mental and emotional burdens that international students carry. These events allow students to connect with others from a similar cultural background, share experiences, and celebrate their heritage. Cultural events also provide opportunities for international students to showcase their culture to the wider university community, thus fostering greater engagement amongst different parts of the student population. International students develop a sense of belonging and create a sense of community on campus by attending cultural events, which can contribute to their overall academic success and well-being (Van Horne et al., 2018).

In our department, we host three major cultural events, coinciding with times in the quarter when stress increases and engagement wanes. These events are open to all students, faculty, and staff.

Holi (spring)

Holi is a vibrant and colorful spring festival traditionally celebrated in Indian culture. The festival signifies the victory of good over evil, and the many colors represent the diversity of life. Indian students share cultural food, wear traditional clothes, and take part in celebrations of music and dance. For many Indian students in the United States, Holi is a time to express their cultural identity and share it with others. At our institution, we engage in one of the more colorful parts of Holi: allowing faculty, staff, and students to throw colored powder at one another. It’s a wonderful energy boost as we wrap up winter and head into spring.

Students celebrating Holi

Lunar New Year (winter)

Lunar New Year is one of the most important cultural events for many Asian communities around the world. It is a time of renewal at the beginning of each new year (typically in winter), and celebrations include family gatherings, traditional foods, and exciting festivities. For many Asian students, the holiday is a time for not only celebrating but also reflecting on the past and looking forward to the future. Many Asian students in the US find comfort and connection through enjoying Lunar New Year with their friends, despite being far from home. Our Lunar New Year events at the start of the winter quarter have included cultural food and games, along with a lion dance and martial arts demonstration. Students find that this lively energy carries them through the first half of the quarter and helps them to connect with other students and faculty from similar backgrounds.

Lunar New Year celebration

Thanksgiving (fall)

For many students who cannot go home during the fall holidays, the Thanksgiving break can be a lonely and challenging time. Many universities recognize this and provide opportunities for students to come together and celebrate a Thanksgiving meal with their peers. These meals provide a sense of community and belonging for students who might otherwise feel isolated during the holiday season. It is also an opportunity for students to pause and reflect on the fall quarter—for many students, their first quarter on campus—before the rush of finals. At our university, we have hosted similar Thanksgiving celebrations, renting out banquet halls to host students and providing them with a traditional holiday meal.

Suggestions for hosting cultural events

While cultural events are essential for promoting diversity on campus and helping to relieve student stress, we acknowledge some challenges to setting them up. For many schools, the major issue may boil down to budget, especially when accounting for food, decorations, and equipment. Another struggle may be in finding enough space to host these events. We hold two of our events off-campus at a banquet hall and an art museum, but not every college will have access to such sites. Finally, our staff and graduate students work tirelessly to organize the logistics of each event, but such festivities may be difficult to plan with a smaller support staff.

We suggest the following steps for those wishing to incorporate cultural events in the classroom or department but who may face some of these challenges:

  1. Look for your core demographic. The makeup of international students will be different at each institution and in each classroom. If you are unsure, reach out to your institution’s international student resource center or office.
  2. Determine how to speak to these students’ needs. What kinds of stressors are they facing, both in the classroom and on campus? Are they seeking bonding experiences, an outlet for creativity and celebration, or something else? Think about how you can tie these ideas back to your class content and to your larger campus community, with the goal of increasing international students’ connection to faculty and other students.
  3. Start small. Instead of a full banquet, think about hosting a simple potluck or even bringing in pictures of home-cooked dishes. If you’re short on space, try something outdoors or at a local park. More important than the size of the event is showing a willingness to speak to your students’ cultural considerations.

Conclusion

Celebrating cultural events such as Holi, Lunar New Year, and Thanksgiving can provide a sense of familiarity and comfort to students who may feel homesick or out of place in a new cultural environment. Taking part in these events can also create a sense of camaraderie and community among students, especially for those who share a similar cultural background. For many international students, these events serve as a reminder of their cultural heritage and provide an opportunity to connect with others who share their traditions and values. After celebrating these events, our students often feel reenergized and motivated, with a renewed sense of purpose and belonging. We’ve also heard from students that they are grateful to have a slice of home away from home. These events can also create a stronger connection between international students and faculty members. Faculty members who attend these events demonstrate an interest in the students’ cultural heritage and show their support for diversity and inclusion. This can create a sense of trust and respect between students and faculty, making international students feel more comfortable approaching faculty members with academic or professional concerns. Celebrating cultural events together provides a fun, shared experience that can help break down barriers and foster a fresh level of engagement within the campus community.

Overall, we find that when it comes to helping students deal with stress and engage in the campus experience, much of our work comes in the classroom. But outside of the class, there are many unique means to speak to our students and address their needs, often in fun and surprising ways. Finding these means just takes a little bit of creativity, originality, and empathy.

References

Smith, Rachel A., and Nigar G. Khawaja. 2011. “A Review of the Acculturation Experiences of International Students.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 35, no. 6: 699–713. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijintrel.2011.08.004.

Van Horne, Sam, Shuhui Lin, Matthew Anson, and Wayne Jacobson. 2018. “Engagement, Satisfaction, and Belonging of International Undergraduates at US Research Universities.” Journal of International Students 8, no. 1: 351–74. https://doi.org/10.32674/jis.v8i1.169.


Rich Yueh, PhD, is an assistant professor of teaching in information systems and Innovative Teaching Award recipient in the School of Business at the University of California, Riverside.

Jonathan Lim, PhD, is an assistant professor of teaching in marketing and a Golden Apple Teaching Award recipient in the School of Business at the University of California, Riverside.