Student organizations celebrate diverse cultures

International students and first-generation Americans at GW often feel strong ties to a cultural center somewhere far from Foggy Bottom. Culturally-based student organizations allow these individuals to meet other students like themselves and design ways to show other GW students what their culture is all about.

These organizations are not just safe havens for those hailing from the same area of the world. Many groups have plans to host events for the upcoming year to promote their unique upbringing and present their distinct culture to the larger GW community.

“Every group on campus is working hard to support each other and to engage majority students,” said Michael Tapscott, director of the Multicultural Students Services Center. “That’s a really unique aspect of GW – the cultural openness.”

There are more than 70 ethnic and cultural student organizations at GW, and many of those are targeted specifically toward people of a specific nationality or heritage. The GW community represents 100 different countries and accommodates more than 2,000 international students, according to the Web site of the International Services Office.

These organizations are especially helpful for recently arrived international students.

Senior Sahar Zomorodi, a member of the Iranian Student Association, who has lived in the U.S. and Iran, said the his group plans to host more cultural events for students outside the group, and the group is especially looking to work with other student organizations in co-sponsoring events.

“International students sometimes do have problems like finding roommates or their niche at GW. I think we’ve been a great resource in helping them adjust,” Zomorodi said.

Sassi Riar, a member of the Pakistani Students’ Association, has lived in Pakistan and the United States. The sophomore said the group helped her connect with other international students.

“It was easy for me to transition because I knew people from the same place I was from,” Riar said.

Majm Haq, whose parents are from Pakistan, is also a member of the Pakistani Students Association. The senior said the group wants to increase not only knowledge of Pakistani culture but to promote overall cultural awareness at GW as well. In October, the organization will hold a fundraiser to raise money for relief efforts for the devastating earthquake that hit Pakistan in 2005.

Berna Yekeler, a GW alumna, is a member of the Turkish Student Association. Yekeler said she enjoyed meeting new people very different from her at GW.

“But at the same time,” she said, “you try to find people that are like you and share your interests.”

She said group members eased her transition not only by helping her with technical problems, such as registering for classes online, but also by helping her interact with more people, meet other international students and gain new friends.

She said that the organization works to promote Turkish culture to other GW students.

“We want others to get exposed to our culture because there is often a misunderstanding about the Turkish people,” Yekeler said. “We are a nation by ourselves, unique.”

The group showcases this distinctiveness in their annual Turkish Night, which Yekeler participated in last year as part of a folk life dancing troupe. Members also frequently get together to watch Turkish movies and soccer matches.

This type of camaraderie is exactly what Eshawn Rawlley, a sophomore who serves as the vice president for the Indian Students Association, was looking for when he joined the ISA.

“I wanted to be more in touch with people who had the same upbringing as me – growing up as a first generation American with Indian parents,” Rawlley said.

The ISA is working on new programming this year, including hosting an inter-collegiate singing competition in February for South Asian a cappella groups from around the country, Rawlley said. The event was dubbed “Awaaz,” which means “voice” in Hindi.

“In a few years, we would like Awaaz to be in the same league as Bhangra Blowout,” said Ralley, referring to the popular South Asian dance competition that nearly 4,000 people attended last year.

Yangjun Lu of the Chinese Student and Scholars Association said he and the other group members will be promoting next summer’s Olympics in Beijing this year. He said the group also hopes to institute an exchange program for GW students.

The group is working with GW and Chinese organizations and universities to offer an affordable program for students interested in visiting China.

Even with the widespread news coverage and presence in movies, “China is still mysterious to most Americans,” said Lu, a second year MBA student from China. “We think the best (way) to let the world know China and Chinese culture is to invite people to go to there personally.”

Senior Erin Andrews, a member of the Caribbean Students Association, said this year the group wants to establish a Caribbean Heritage Week in the spring that will showcase “events surrounding Caribbean food, music, literature, history, and people.”

She added, “We want the group to be a haven for freshmen with Caribbean heritage or international students from the Caribbean.”

Although these groups are formed with the intention of promoting a specific culture, members stressed that the groups are open to everyone and that they would like more GW students from any nationality to get involved in their groups, a sentiment that was echoed by Tapscott.

“I’d like to encourage and challenge everyone to experience cultural immersion,” Tapscott said. “You’ll do better in life if you have better greater understanding of different cultures.”

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