Fashion show participants from the 38th International Festival, 2015
Discover the rich history of the University’s International Festival
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In 2017, UIS will celebrate the 40th International Festival, the longest running student-led program on campus, organized primarily by international students at UIS.
Each year, hundreds of campus and community members have met for an international meal, program and exhibits. Held this year at The Recreation and Athletic Center on November 4 from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., the Festival’s theme is “World as One: Uniting Peoples and Cultures.”
Veronica Espina MA ’01 PAA, from Chile, now teaches in the English and Modern Languages Department at UIS. She helped organize the event in 2001 and 2002, serving as emcee the second year.
“As international students,” she said, “we wanted people from the campus and community to know who we were, that we were part of the world and the world was part of us, and that they could understand the world through our eyes.”
The lasting success of the event, according to Dimitrios Panagiotidis MA ’01 PAA, comes from “a dedicated group of organizers, fresh from their own country, and a very receptive and appreciative community.” Panagiotidis, from Greece, helped plan the event in 1999 and 2000, and also served as emcee.
The story of the festival starts with Gerlinde Coates, who would become the university’s first director of the Office of International Student Services (ISS).
In 1977, Coates was working in the Learning Center, helping international students with their English. She proposed an international potluck to her students “as a way to acquaint the campus and Springfield community with the beautiful cultural asset that the University had.”
The small potluck took place in a corner of the Brookens Library Concourse, with people from the campus and community in attendance. The event led to the creation of the International Students Association on campus.
In following years, that small event became the International Festival and grew in popularity both among the campus community and the Springfield community. One year even saw an attendance of 800 guests.
According to Espina, one of the best parts of the Festival happened behind the scenes. “In order to get to the Festival, we had to forge relationships with people whose history or culture we knew nothing about. I became friends with Thai students, Indian students, and Chinese and Korean students. That was awesome and amazing!”
Krishna Brahmamdam MA ’98 LAS, MBA ’04 CBM, from India, helped organize the festival in 1987 and 1988 and served as president of the International Students Association the second year. He agrees with Espina: “Preparations for this event brought more cohesiveness among all international students. We developed more friendships and started helping each other.”
The Festival also brought many community groups to campus, such as Greek and Scottish dancers as well as belly dancers. A special relationship also developed between the ISA and the DuBois Elementary School, and for several years, the DuBois students provided centerpieces and, led by students, participated in international dance or music performances.
From the beginning, authentic flavors
The original potluck soon became a sit-down dinner the next year—”more like a dinner club or dinner theater,” said Dr. Jonathan GoldbergBelle, now Senior Director for International Programs and Internships. GoldbergBelle helped students organize the festival from 1998 to 2008.
Students either did the cooking themselves with cafeteria staff supervision or vice versa. Each year’s students tried to top the last year’s meal, and soon prospective students received information about the festival while still in their home countries. Bring recipes, native garb and items to exhibit, they were told.
The international students cared so much about the authenticity of their dishes that after cafeteria staff made sample dishes compatriots would meet for taste testing so that cooks could adjust the seasonings if necessary.
The students’ passion for excellence once led to an all-nighter. The printed menu listed Greek dolmathes (grape leaves stuffed with rice and meat), but the night before the festival, promised volunteers failed to show up to help prepare the dish. “A few students and I sat in the cafeteria all night long, rolling hundreds and hundreds of dolmathes!” says Coates. “They tasted wonderful.”
Over the years, more and more local ethnic restaurants have also contributed food to the Festival.
By the second Festival, students began sharing performances from their country: songs, stories, dances, kickboxing demonstrations, games, the ever-popular fashion show, and many others.
The theme often led to unique entertainment. At the 7th International Festival, for example, with a theme of “Weddings Around the World,” students enacted a Pakistani wedding,
an African wedding, and a Persian wedding.
Other themes have focused on Folk Festivals, Games, Languages and Toys. “Whatever we felt we could manage,” said Coates, “that’s what we did.”
Here again, the program created ties among different nationalities. In 2001, for example, Yulia Kriskovets MA ’04 PAA, a student from Russia, had become a friend of Adelaide Hummel MA ’03 PAA from Brazil. “They were performing an axe dance at the festival, and they were missing one person. When they asked me to join, I said, Of course—sure! It was fun,” she said.
And in 1997, when Panagiotidis emceed the event, he met with each of the almost 20 groups to learn how to say a greeting and introduction in their own languages. “Ethnic groups from the audience came up afterwards asking if I could really speak all these languages,” he said. “When I showed them all the cheat-sheets I had under the podium, we all had a good laugh!”
A huge show-and-tell opportunity
From the very first potluck, students wanted to share artifacts from their countries. “The exhibits were always a major part of the festival—always,” said Coates.
Students were eager to bring examples of their home country’s handcrafts, fabric, instruments, and other artifacts, as well as maps and posters. Many displays were interactive. Students created calligraphy for visitors, encouraged them to play native drums, demonstrated toys, and set up craft tables for children.
Students even used the exhibit hall to publicize political issues from their home countries, such as the student from South Africa who had an exhibit on apartheid.
Brahmamdam was always eager to take questions from visitors. “What is this? How do you make this? What’s the significance of this song, dance, artifact. I came from a country in which no one asks me these questions because everyone knows, but, here at SSU/UIS, it is all of a sudden a great story. So, naturally, we get excited to share the knowledge with everyone who shows interest.”
Changes through the years
Over the years, the Festival’s elements have stayed the same: food, program, exhibits. Where students come from has changed, however, as well as the number.
In early years, with about 100 international students on campus, they came primarily from the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, and Africa. In the 90s, the number of students from China grew, and in 2002, according to GoldbergBelle, “we began seeing bigger cohorts coming from India.”
Today UIS has just under 1,000 international students on campus, representing 27 countries.
A special request for next year
In 1995, as part of the university’s 25th anniversary, the Office of International Student Services sponsored a reunion weekend for international alumni which culminated in the 18th International Festival. Alumni from 60 countries returned to Springfield, and the Festival was so well attended that the program took place in Sangamon Auditorium.
Next year, in 2017, another special anniversary celebration will mark the Festival’s 40th year. Tentative plans include an international students’ alumni reunion and a program in the Auditorium, according to Erika Suzuki, Program Coordinator for the Office of International Student Services.
“Please send suggestions,” says Suzuki, who would also appreciate knowing if international alumni are interested in attending a reunion in the fall of 2017.