Symposium focuses on respecting local culture during global service

Teresa Mathew/Daily
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By Stephanie Dilworth, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 24, 2013

The Students for Global Engagement presented the Third Annual Student Symposium on Global Service and Engagement in the Michigan Union Saturday.

Sponsored by the International Center, the symposium allowed students to reflect on their international experiences, especially while working with the Peace Corps.

The University has close ties to the Peace Corps. President John F. Kennedy famously proclaimed an idea for a volunteer corps on the Union steps during his 1960 presidential campaign. The University is the fourth largest producer of Peace Corps volunteers, with a total 2,458 since 1961, according to the Global Michigan website.

About 100 students were selected to attend the event after completing an application process about their past international experiences, what they might gain from the symposium and what they could contribute to the event.

LSA sophomore Courtney Green, co-chair of Students for Global Engagement, said the quality of speakers and discussion afterwards were exactly what the symposium needed.

“We have been really impressed by (the speakers’) talks and their experiences. We have been working with them to make sure that their talks are reflective of our goals,” Green said. “I think this has been a wonderful opportunity to bring students together to think critically about their past experiences and future experiences.”

Social Work graduate student Craig Laurie kicked off the event about tensions between global engagement and internationalization.

Laurie stressed that global exchanges must be a two-way, give-and-take relationship. He also reflected on his experiences in the Peace Corps in Moldova, and highlighted the importance of the University’s study abroad scholarship through the LSA Student Government.

“Even if you disagree with the stuff that the institution or organization is doing, it is your responsibility, and you are accountable,” Laurie said.

Following Laurie, Rackham student Megan Levanduski gave a speech titled “Bend Without Breaking: Negotiating Gender Identities in Kazakhstan” focusing on her experience creating an all-girls health and fitness camp while working in the Peace Corps. Levanduski highlighted the necessity of remaining flexible while traveling abroad, especially in understanding gender norms. She achieved her goal of creating an all-girls health camp by changing the original name of a girls “leadership” camp to a “health and fitness” camp in order to work with the traditional gender roles of Kazakhstan.

“This didn’t change who I was as a woman and didn’t change my message, but it allowed me to show the people I was working with that I was trying to understand where they were coming from, and I was trying to meet them halfway,” Levanduski said.

While reflecting on her own study abroad experience, LSA sophomore Jehan Jawad, a member of the Students for Global Engagement, said she agrees that it is difficult to balance respecting another culture while maintaining one’s own values.

“There is a thin line between someone else's values and your own,” Jawad said. “What’s key is keeping an open mind and knowing that you have to be flexible in your own values and practices.”

Engineering seniors Sita Syal and Carrie Tamarelli discussed “Appropriate Technology for Global Development.” They suggested that technology can be a useful way to spur regional development.

Syal stressed that it’s crucial to work with the community in order to find the best solution.

“When you focused really on the human-centered part of this design . . . that’s when you and your community can come up with sustainable solutions to development,” Syal said.

LSA sophomore Layne Vandenberg traveled abroad with MPowered’s Kenya Project last summer. Vandenberg said she could relate to the teachings of the symposium because it was essential to understand Kenyan culture in order to best serve the local people while she was there.

“Without their input, our ideas would not have worked and they wouldn’t be tailored to the culture we were working with,” Vandenberg said. “We have certain perceptions of what we think people need, but it can be completely different from what people actually want.”