Why Learning About International Cultures is Important

This November 14– 18, Cultural Vistas participated in International Education Week (IEW) by bringing international exchange visitors to elementary, middle and high schools in both New York and Washington, D.C to give presentations on their home countries. This year we had 19 J-1 international interns and exchange alumni participate.  The hope is, by sharing their cultures with young American students, participants help to increase global understanding.

Through feedback collected from teachers, students, our international participants, and Cultural Vistas staff, we learned that these presentations are influential and can make a lasting impact on everyone’s life. 

Here our Top 3 IEW Takeaways from Participants:

It’s fun!

By listening to IEW presentations, students got to “visit” new countries, and consistently said afterwards that it was a lot of fun!

Presenters are encouraged to create entertaining and interactive activities for the students to participate in. An Edmund S. Muskie Internship Program alumna made a short, Jeopardy-style game for the students after giving her presentation on Russia. One student commented that he “liked how the presenter was very engaging” and enjoyed learning about foreign countries because it gave him “a greater outlook on life.”

After Korea WEST participant Yunhee Jung’s presentation, a 4th grader said “I would describe it as fun and exciting. I would like to try Korean food.” The class had learned about traditional dishes, including bibimpap and beef bulgogi. During a presentation by another Korean participant, students were asked to volunteer for a Korean writing challenge where they were able to test out their Korean writing skills and learn how to write their own names in the language.

Korean writing challenge International Education Week
Students raise their hands to volunteer for the Korean writing challenge at P.S. 321 in Brooklyn, led by Yeonkyeong Kim.

Students also had fun joking around with their exchange visitors. According to Jennifer Nina, a Cultural Vistas staffer who was onsite for a presentation by Altynbek, a Kyrgyz Muskie alum, “The best moment I witnessed was when Altynbek was given a bag of Takis (a brand of spicy corn chips) by the school, and the class started chanting in unison ‘EAT ONE! EAT ONE! EAT ONE!’ with the class then bursting into cheers after he ate one! That moment alone was gold.”

It helps to break down barriers and overcome stereotypes

This year our participants represented nine different countries. Some of these countries, like Germany, Japan, China and Russia, are well known to most students because of international media coverage. But we also had participants who joined us from Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. These countries, including Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, are often not often in the mix when speaking about geography or global economics.

One way to break down barriers is to introduce students to a new country. Tamar Papava , an alumna of our Edmund S. Muskie Internship Program,  started off by asking students to raise their hands if they had heard of Georgia, the country. Only two hands went up in a group of over 40 students. During her presentation, Tamar taught many aspects of Georgian culture, including typical cuisine and traditional dances.

By the end, students who had never before heard of Georgia were commenting on how they wanted to visit it to see the beautiful landscapes and try the delicious-looking food.

Georgia presenation during International education week
Edmund S. Muskie Internship Program alumna Tamar Papava shows students where the country Georgia is on the map along with showing them popular outdoor activities and landscapes of Georgia.

Even if they had heard of a country before, this was many students’ first time meeting someone from there. During a presentation by Miho Mitobe, a participant of Cultural Vistas’ Japan IDYL program, at Theodore Roosevelt High School, she taught the students how to make origami paper cranes. It was great to see not only the students listening to her presentation on Japan, but how engaged they were during the activity.

Students kept asking for the next folding step and wanted Miho to double check that they had done each fold the correct way.

Japan IDYL Theodore Roosevelt High School International Education Week
Miho Mitobe, also a participant of Cultural Vistas’ Japan IDYL program, teaching students to make paper cranes at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C.

Other students remarked on how IEW helped them learn positive things about countries that are portrayed differently by the media. After a presentation given by one of our participants from Russia, a student remarked that it was “mind-changing and that what they see and hear is people talking about how Russians are bad but they aren’t.”

Another misconception that students had was that Russia is always cold. After the presentation students learned that Russia has four seasons, just like the United States.

During another presentation on Germany, many students were surprised and impressed by the relative size of the country compared to the U.S. given that Germany is a big contender in sports and an important player in global politics.

Germany presentation powerpoint International Education Week
PowerPoint slide from Desiree Schwindenhammer’s PowerPoint on her home country, Germany, showing the size comparison to the USA.

According to  Kathryn Brenner, a teacher at Jefferson Academy, teaching international cultures to American students “is incredibly important.” She added, “Our students are growing up in a global age and without this background knowledge they will not be able to be successful in the changing world.” Kathryn said their World Culture Fair is a great opportunity to “develop globally aware students and having folks in from other countries allows us to do that.”

It creates an environment for understanding and perspective building

We asked all of the students who attended IEW presentations “If you had to sum up this activity in one word, how would you describe it?”

Here is what they had to say:


After the presentations, students were also asked why they thought learning about international cultures was important, and many said it helps to create mutual understanding. One sophomore from Columbia Heights Education Campus commented that “because we live in a divided world, and it’s important to know about each other.” Another student said learning about new cultures helps “expand your horizons, and shows you the differences around the world” leading to building “strong relationships and lasting friendships.”

Living peacefully together was a priority to another student, who said presentations on other cultures are “important because as America is becoming more diverse, it’s important to know all the cultures.”

P.S. 72 Altynbek Ismailov International Education Week
Students pose for a class photo with Edmund S. Muskie Alumna, Altynbek Ismailov, after giving his presentation on his home culture of Kyrgyzstan at P.S. 72 in New York City.

International Education Week is a great way for students to understand how large the world really is beyond America. Carlos Zamora, a 3rd and 4th grade teacher at P.S. 72 commented on how “living in New York City is like living in a bubble. Exposing [students] to other cultures will open their minds to try different things.”

This goes both ways, as some of our international participants had never been in an American school. Yujin Jang, a Korea WEST program participant noted that “before I met [the students], I didn’t expect that they would have interests and huge curiosity about other cultures. However, they had a big interest and bunch of questions about my presentation.

Several questions they asked me were surprisingly impressive.” Naoki Imazato, a Train USA participant, had a similar reaction after attending P.S. 321. He said he was amazed by the student’s positive attitude. “If I talk to Japanese student, they are shy and there are few questions. I felt surprised and happy as there are many questions from the students.”

International Education Participants P.S. 321 NYC
Exchange participants pose for a photo in the Hallway of P.S. 321 with student artwork in the background.

We would like to thank all of the J-1 international exchange participants and alumni who volunteered their time to present during International Education Week. It is because of passionate people like all of them that we are able to create global understanding and continue to make an impact with all the work that we do.

Cultural Vistas participates in International Education Week every year and encourages all its exchange visitors to get involved. Interested in volunteering for IEW next year or want to learn about other ways to get involved in your community?

Check out our blog post on How to Volunteer as a J-1 International Intern in the U.S.

Love seeing all the photos from International Education Week? Check out our Facebook Album to see more.

Hear what some of our international exchange participants had to say about what international education means to them by reading our blog post.