Vol. 3, No. 1: Spring/Summer 2007

A Passion for Pashto

by Elizabeth Rosdeitcher

The Global Village sustains, supports, and ignites the interest of undergraduates as they study international issues, foreign languages, and world culture.

One frigid day in late January, a group of Indiana University students met in their Bloomington residence hall lounge to discuss their upcoming Super Bowl party. This would not seem out of the ordinary, especially with both football teams close to home. But when the Super Bowl plans are on an agenda that includes:

  • celebrating the Tibetan New Year,
  • a trip to Chicago to explore sites of international interest,
  • monthly language offerings (Arabic in January, Greek in February),
  • and Butter Day, a Russian holiday to celebrate the coming of spring,

then you might suspect that this in not your average campus dorm.

And you’d be right. Welcome to the Global Village Living-Learning Center, first set up in 2004 in one of the smaller satellite buildings in Foster Quad through a partnership between Residential Program Services and the College of Arts and Sciences. Its express purpose: to sustain, support, and ignite the interest of students who plan to take advantage of IU’s international resources; study international issues, foreign languages, and world cultures; and prepare for an increasingly globalized life.

Global Village Director Herbert Terry, an associate professor in telecommunications, and Assistant Director Sean McGuire, a full-time staff member, are quite clear about how they do this. In large part, it is simply by putting these students together. The students learn most through contact with each other.

“On one hand we’re here as guides and mentors. But the real value is in bringing these folks together and letting them engage with each other,” Terry explains. Last year, McGuire reports, “we had a student who was taking Portuguese among four other languages and soon we had a whole cadre of students enrolling in Portuguese. So they may come in with French, which they took in high school, but then they meet their neighbor who is taking Welsh, and this sparks a new interest. A lot of what we accomplish is letting them evolve naturally through influencing each other.”

The students further elaborate how this works. Melissa Dittmann is a freshman from northern Indiana who plans to create an individualized major combining anthropology, Asian studies, and the arts. She took a “gap year” between high school and college to live and study in India. As she insightfully puts it, “You expand your horizons through other people’s interests and learn more about places you didn’t know much about before. I’m kind of the India, China, Asia person, but we also have people who study Western Europe, Africa, and Japan.”

Kasia Rada, a freshman planning to major in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, is studying Arabic this year and plans to take Persian and Pashto next year. Ideally she would study abroad in a place as remote and unlike the U.S. as Afghanistan, but will “probably go to Cairo, which is more practical.” At the Global Village, she says, those around her reflect a whole “global scene. My interest is in the Middle East, but here I run into people with interests in Scandinavia and Latin America.”

Resident Adviser Rebeca Hernandez, now in her second year at the Global Village, is a pre-med from Texas majoring in bioanthropology and studying Arabic and Spanish. She hopes one day to practice medicine in developing countries for an organization like Doctors without Borders. “Living here makes us better global citizens. I’m constantly learning more about the world. It fuels not just my academic and career interests, but my life’s interests as well.”

Building community, Terry explains, involves striking a “balance between wanting the students to decide what to do and guiding them so that they get the most out of the environment.” Students each pay a $100 activity fee for programs and events, and in consultation with the directors, the eight or nine students on its Central Council get together each week to decide how that money will be used and to discuss programming: international film nights, dinners featuring different cultures and cuisines, a weekly political discussion group, programs in collaboration with other campus organizations.

In their first semester, all residents take a one-credit, peer-taught course in the residence hall, which introduces them to each other and to the range of international interests they represent. “Sharing this experience, knowing they all have this global orientation, brings about a good synergy,” McGuire suggests.

It’s a synergy with explosive potential. “Last semester,” says McGuire, “we had different language instructors come into the introductory class and give a mini-lesson. The students decided they really liked that. So this spring we have language instructors once a month teaching a class in a different language. I had a student come in the other day and ask if we can have someone teach Lakota,” says McGuire. “Another asked about Swahili,” Terry adds.

And so they egg each other on in their interests. From Serbian to Norwegian, to Urdu, Georgian, Arabic, and Swahili, their curiosity extends into the not-so-far-flung corners of the world. If globalization makes the world smaller, the chemistry between these students compresses it even further.

And if the world is getting smaller, so is the university. As Terry, who has been at IU for 32 years, explains, “with its knowledge of the campus, the staff bridges the gap between the resident system and the campus. We help the students to get a quicker, smoother, more internationally focused start on making maximum use of the resources of this university.”

High on that list of resources which the Village brings to its residents is knowledge of overseas studies programs. As Terry and McGuire see it, providing information and support on opportunities for overseas travel is one of their primary missions. They themselves frequently advise students about these resources, and the Village offers two courses with the Office of Overseas Studies, one to prepare students for their experience abroad, another to debrief them on their return. “If we’ve done our job right,” says McGuire, “all of our students will go abroad during their time at IU.”

But the staff bridge the gap between residence halls and classroom in other ways as well, putting students in touch with the international studies librarian, organizing visits to the career center, and providing a lot of advising support, academic or personal. As resident Beth Tabor, a premed majoring in French and biology, observes, “I come from a small town and a small school in Indiana and the Global Village has made a big campus feel smaller.” Living there, she adds, she is also made aware of IU’s many international organizations: a German club, a Vietnamese group, or any number of other campus academic activities.

Then there are those within the residence hall itself. Special internationally oriented courses, for example, are offered in the Village to residents and other students, among them, Global Issues and the Global Media, Islam and the Modern World, Violence and Politics in Europe, and Global Odysseys, a course on travel writing from Australia and elsewhere. Faculty members with international interests are frequently invited to speak at the Village.

Sumit Ganguly, director of the India Studies Institute, professor of political science, and holder of the Rabindranath Tagore Professorship in Indian Cultures and Civilizations, has given a couple of lectures at the Global Village. He has gotten to know it as a place that is “uniformly pleasant and relaxed with students who are talented, thoughtful, and highly responsive.”

As it turns out, the bridge from students to staff, dorm rooms to classrooms, is often a two-way street. “Because our offices are in the midst of the residence,” says Terry, “they get to know us and we get to know them.” Directors and staff get a first-hand view of the students’ world that can sometimes make it, too, seem like a foreign culture.

In fact, Terry explains, the staff has learned that “to be effective in running the Village and recruiting, to make this an effective community, we need to acknowledge that they have their own way of communicating and learning about things.” Staff and students are subsequently making use of Facebook, the social networking Internet site, to publicize events and communicate with each other, learning the students’ culture to build community. “Students,” McGuire adds, “don’t even communicate by e-mail anymore. They communicate by Facebook, MySpace, and instant messaging.”

So who are these students? Hernandez believes that what Global Village residents all share is “a focus on something other than themselves. Everyone here is absorbed by cultures and languages that are unlike the ones they grew up in.”

Beyond that common passion, they are a widely diverse group of people. The Global Village now houses about 100 residents. Most study at least one, and often two, languages—between them all 16 different languages. They represent a range of disciplines from biology to political science to music, international studies, and business; they are of diverse backgrounds as well as different political views.

The variety has often surprised Terry and McGuire. They describe the varying perspectives represented—from liberal Democrats to conservative Republicans, from students who have been on Christian missions, to ROTC students who are here mostly for their foreign language interests. “I would never have thought this would be a good place for ROTC students to live,” says Terry, “but then they started showing up in fairly large numbers. And so far we’ve had an environment in which all the diversity of thought is handled in an intellectual and civil manner. They are all respectful of each other and all very comfortable here.”

So for example, students have set up two bulletin boards, one on fundamentalist Christianity and one on fundamentalist Islam. “It’s meant to be provocative, to stimulate the conversation and it’s a little bit of a risk. But if we can’t have that conversation here, where can you have it?” Terry asks.

Here, he adds, “we build a community that from day one supports their interests rather than damps them out. It’s OK here, for example, to go into your dorm lounge and announce your excitement about your Pashto class.”

At times, this enthusiasm erupts into the absurd. As McGuire suggests, “It’s hard to explain and often very funny what they tap into. Their pop culture transcends national borders. They recently put up a poster about the Japanese inventor of Ramen noodles when he died. One of the Facebook groups they started was a fake fraternity with the initials KGB. They have their own sensibility which is international and they are able to play with nuances that are beyond their national culture.”

Last fall after the death of the Australian Crocodile Hunter and wildlife conservationist Steve Irwin, Village residents spontaneously organized a wake. “It was something everyone had heard about and was surprised about,” explains Melissa Dittmann. “I wrote an ode; someone else composed music.” The wake concluded with one student reading from her Koran and another reading from his Bible.

Terry and McGuire, as well as the students, take great pride in the growth of this community: in its spontaneous creativity, its diversity, its open-mindedness, and the mutual influence students have on one another. For Terry, the living-learning environment “supplements, supports, and complements classroom experience” in tangible ways: “In the classroom, academic progress is measured in exams. Here, you see it.”

Elizabeth Rosdeitcher is a freelance writer in Bloomington.

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