The world shrunk just a tiny bit last Thursday and Friday, Feb. 14 and Feb. 15, as students at the University of Washington (UW) hosted their third ever cultural festival.
International University of Washington students from over 30 countries gathered for the third annual CulturalFest, a small-scale world expo held on campus to recognize and appreciate the cultures that make up the university’s unique student body.
Hosted by UW’s Foundation for International Understanding through Students (FIUTS), the annual CulturalFest brought in over 100 student volunteers and hundreds of visitors to learn, discover, and explore the spread of cultures and traditions outside of their own.
“It’s a celebration of the diversity of the University of Washington campus,” said Alison Kilkinny, FIUTS education programs manager. “It allows them to have the opportunity to showcase their culture not only to the campus community, but also to the greater Seattle community.”
The two-day event featured 37 booths representing 33 countries and four regions for students to share their native cultural experiences. The event culminated with a night of international traditional performances.
The booth exhibit was open and free to the public, hoping to draw more than solely UW students to the attraction. Field trips from several Seattle elementary schools brought grade school-aged children to come and interact with the volunteers.
“I think the most special part of CultureFest is allowing people to have conversations with other people around the world,” Kilkinny said. “FIUTS thinks that the best way to learn about the world is from the people themselves and not necessarily from books or movies or the news, but having personal conversations with people from around the world and sharing experiences together as really the most authentic way to learn about their cultures.”
Aita Musazay emigrated with her family from Afghanistan when she was only 6 months old. Though she grew up in America, her cultural background still plays a major role in her life.
“People just don’t know a lot about Afghanistan,” she said. “There’s a war there. It’s very highly misunderstood. I really wanted to do this to show that we’re just normal people living our lives and we have a really ancient culture that dates back to antiquity. We have all these cultural things.”
Hoping to create a more interactive environment for younger children, CulturalFest coordinators created a world map with spaces to write words in different languages when visiting a specific booth. The idea behind the map was to spark curiosity and encourage conversation.
To further stimulate younger visitors, Musazay wrote their names in Farsi and showed them pictures of everyday Afghan fashion and poems written by the poet Rumi.
“I just want little kids to see that there are other kids in Afghanistan just like them and it’s not like this crazy place that the media makes it out to be,” Musazay said.
Across the convention space, Astrid Rivera and Julia Lim covered their corner booth with a slew of ornaments from Central America.
Rivera considers herself a native Nicaraguan, though her family has moved throughout the region and is currently scattered across Costa Rica, Honduras, and El Salvador. Lim is a Korean-born, Panamanian-raised freshman at the UW.
After hearing about the FIUTS event, the two teamed up to build a booth that recognizes the entirety of Central America, agreeing that it is a region too easily molded into other Latin American countries to the north and south.
“I wanted to honor the whole Central America, rather than just focus on Nicaragua and Panama, so people would recognize how similar we are,” Rivera said. “But we are not Mexico. We are not South America. Though we are similar, we are more united.”
Adorned with the seven different flags and tables full of wooden statues, handcrafted rain instruments, and El Salvadorian silverware, Rivera and Lim’s goal was to demonstrate the variety of culture that lies between the North and South Americas. Like Musazay, they wanted to leave the children with some working knowledge of their countries that will stick with them into the future.
“I try to tell them where we are located and then emphasize that we are small, but there are seven countries in that small area,” Lim said. “And I try to hopefully get some information in their head.”
Music and dance: Bringing people closer
Violeta Parra is a Chilean music group made up of 12 musicians and dancers, most of which are UW students and alumni. This was Violeta Parra’s second year performing with FIUTS. Because of the size and wide range of audience attendees, CulturalFest has become one of the group’s most important performances of the year.
“This has become one of the most important presentations for us,” said Aurelio Pino, eight-year Violeta Parra member. “We perform every month in schools and festivals, but this is the most important for us. This is a different group of people, so for us, we’re very excited.”
Draped in colorful traditional Chilean clothing, Pino and Felipe Sandoval, recent UW graduate, describe the significance behind their passion for folk dancing. Though Violeta Parra has existed for 35 years, they are constantly recruiting young members to maintain and preserve the folk-music tradition.
“We feel that music, dancing, and singing is a way to engage people in common conversation,” said Sandoval. “I think that the opportunity to be here with such a large audience gives us the opportunity to start this conversation and let people know more about the 17 million people that live in Chile through us.”
“We live in a very small world,” Pino added. “Everybody knows everybody right now because of the Internet, Facebook, and stuff, but what we are trying to show is our traditions. Some people might know Chile from different aspects — food, wine, and music. So our idea is to show them a different aspect. This is our tradition.”
With over hundreds of visitors and performance attendees, CulturalFest has become a conversation starter, passing on the wealth of cultural knowledge and inspiring a curiosity to its audience.
“There is an incredible potential of information of what we can get from students that are visiting here from all over the world. There’s just so much to learn about the world, but also just about the way people see the world,” said FIUTS Executive Director Era Schrepfer. “There’s this huge expectation that they’re going to come here and learn about the United States, but at some point, everybody is really proud of where they come from and they get to share that.”
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