Embracing Diversity: Global Connections helps build a community across cultures
At the heart of intercultural connections in Centre County is Global Connections, a volunteer-driven nonprofit affiliated with Penn State University and the United Way of Centre County.
Each year, thousands of international students, scholars, visitors, and their families benefit from Global Connections programs, and many local residents benefit as well through a sharing of cultures.
Board President Janyce Mose says that whatever our political differences, she thinks we can all agree that we are living in difficult times almost everywhere in the world, as misunderstanding about various cultures is leading to fear and even hatred of others.
“Our mission is to ‘strengthen the fabric of our diverse community through partnerships, service, education and advocacy,’” she says. “Global Connections will continue to provide opportunities to develop cultural diversity and understanding within our community. We believe it is critical to a well-functioning society that people of all cultures can work together to improve the lives of its citizens. This will only be achieved with deeper intercultural understanding and acceptance.”
Founded in 1961, Global Connections is located in the Boucke Building on the Penn State campus, but its impact reaches far beyond. Its mission is aimed at fostering intercultural understanding and building a strong, inclusive community across cultures through service, education, advocacy, and partnerships. The organization provides essential support for internationals, offering rich cultural sharing and learning opportunities to local residents, and connecting people from different cultural backgrounds for meaningful relationships.
Mose first became aware of Global Connections about 10 years ago when she and her husband decided to enter the Family Friendship Program, which matches international residents with local families. Since that time, they have been matched with families from Japan, Taiwan, Turkey, and Iran. Mose also attended some Cultural Luncheons and Women’s International Nights. In July 2016, she joined the Board of Directors, and is now president of the board.
Mose and her husband moved here from the Pacific Northwest, a region that is home to a large population of international residents. They soon saw that State College also had a large population of international students and residents, yet the local population did not seem to be as aware of this.
“There did not appear to be much interaction between international residents and locals with regard to cultural diversity and inter-cultural awareness,” she says. “We have greatly enjoyed the friendships made with our Family Friendship families and as many of the local matches do, we maintain communication with some of them. It is a great way to learn the ways of those around the world and to understand how they live, learn, and cope with life. At the same time, they are able to see how American society – good and bad – works, and sometimes to dispel incorrect images of life in the United States they have learned in their homes.”
Originally from Chongqing, China, Wenjie Fu graduated from Ohio University in 2013 with a master’s degree in biomolecular and chemical engineering, then moved to Denver for her second master’s in business management at the University of Denver. Before moving to State College, she worked for the University of Denver as teaching facilitator to assistant new international students during orientations and language workshops.
Fu started at Global Connections a year and a half ago as program coordinator. She brings experience in organizing and coordinating cultural projects and facilitating international student orientations and language workshops. She enjoys providing assistance for international groups to help them adapt to new environments quickly and smoothly. Her first-hand experience as an international student in the United States has prepared her with cultural sensitivity and respect for diversity.
“I really enjoy working with international students and scholars,” she says. “As a former international student, I understand it is very challenging for many international students and scholars to adopt a new environment, studying and living by using their second or third language; so, I wanted to help them to overcome difficulties and enjoy their studying-in-America time.”
Fu moved to State College with her husband, Derek, in the summer of 2015 and discovered Global Connections through the PSU Global Programs website, global.psu.edu.
“I was very excited to attend all the cultural activities Global Connections provided,” she says.
The first event at which Fu volunteered was a Cultural Luncheon focused on Nigeria.
“With many other volunteers, I helped the guest chef to prepare a wonderful Nigerian lunch for more than 130 guests,” she says. “I loved that enriching experience of learning about a different culture via food, and also the joyful time working with other peer volunteers from all the world.”
As program coordinator, Fu typically works on helping internationals find a partner through the Conversation Partners Program, International Friendship Program, or Women’s Intercultural Book Group. She talks to program participants on a daily basis, matching partners based on their registration information, and delivers the programs for them.
“If we have approaching events, I also help with some parts of the events – for example, marketing, volunteer recruiting, and fundraising for sponsorship,” she says. “During the day, I answer any questions from drop-in visitors and phone calls if there are any to help them find the best resources for their needs.”
Eneida Castano came to the U.S. from Colombia, with a degree in marketing and international business from Sergio Arboleda University in Bogota. In addition, she has taken courses in costumer services and sales, and for eight years has worked for different companies in Colombia, in the areas of personal and home care, pharmaceuticals, and telecommunications.
Castano became involved with Global Connections this past July.
“I take classes such as cooking, ESL, and conversation partner,” she says. “I participate in different events as a volunteer, for example, International Women’s Night and International Luncheon. I like meeting international people, helping people, and learning the other cultures.”
In a very short time, Global Connections has helped Castano improve her English and has introduced her to new people and cultures.
“I am so thankful because the people of this community offered my beautiful reception after my wedding,” she says. “It was a wonderful moment.”
Woojin Kong came to Penn State from Seoul, South Korea, 3½ years ago and recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in public relations. Her goal is to soon return home and look for a job using her Penn State degree.
During one of her classes, Kong was required to do an interview with someone in an international program. For that project, she was able to hook up with Global Connections. When the possibility of an internship came up, she applied and was accepted. For the past semester, she interned in the Global Connections office.
Kong’s daily activities include general office work such as filing and data entry. In addition, she worked to organize the Children’s Festival last April, two Cultural Luncheons – Korea and Iraq – and Global Connections’ Tax Assistance Program.
Kong has enjoyed her time at Global Connections not only because it augments her educational goals of public relations and marketing, but because she has been able to make connections with people from around the world.
While many realize there are a significant number of international undergraduate and graduate students at Penn State, Mose believes that people also need to consider the spouses and children with them in this country, as most cannot work, and many do not speak English very well.
“It is difficult for them to integrate into a society so unfamiliar,” she says. “This can be a significant burden to students or workers who have to worry about life for their family.”
To help in those areas, Global Connections offers many classes that allow international family members to interact with native speakers in a fun, social way – everything from English as a Second Language classes, to cooking, to poetry and book groups. While partners such as the PSU library system and Schlow Centre Region Library work with them to pick appropriate materials, local accountants and tax law specialists help as advisers in the Tax Assistance Program each spring. In addition, Global Connections offers special events like Women’s International Night and several cultural luncheons each year. Sponsors from the community help provide supplies and food for these events, and there is a strong interaction between international and local attendees.
While Global Connections has a small staff, the organization is made up of dedicated people who have big ideas. While most of its services and programs are free, the organization still needs to pay its staff and run the office. Global Connections is partly funded by Penn State’s Office of Global Programs, and also receives funds from the United Way.
“As a 501C3, we are involved in the Centre Foundation’s Centre Gives program from which we receive some funding,” Mose says. “Our loyal and longstanding donors are invaluable to us and we could not continue without their support of our mission both financially and by volunteering.”
Each year, Global Connections holds a major fundraiser in the State College community. In odd years, the Passport-on-a-Plate Gala dinner and Silent Auction are held, where attendees enjoy a dinner of international food from a specific country or area chosen by the board. Residents and groups design special tablescapes based on that theme, and the Nittany Lion Inn is transformed into the site of a magical evening, taking on the personality of such countries as Mexico, France, Italy, or China.
In 2008, Global Connections held its inaugural Passport-on-a-Plate: Home Edition dinners at various homes in the area. In even years, they present the dinners, where local community members host international dinners in their homes. The dinners have been a huge success.
People hosting the meal or others involved in the preparation or serving of the meal are from the country whose cuisine is served to dinner guests that evening. Each guest donates $75 made payable to Global Connections, to support their programs and activities.
“The dinners are cooked by international residents or visitors who are happy to share their knowledge of their country and its cuisine with others,” Mose says. “This is a wonderful way to meet new people, eat delicious food, and learn about a variety of other countries.”
The next series of Home Edition dinners will be held Fridays and Saturdays in February and March.
“This past year we began a new summer fundraiser – The Everything But the Kitchen Sink Auction,” Mose says. “Anyone can donate auction items to us – almost anything – and it will be catalogued and auctioned by Michael Guillard’s online auction company. It was a big success and helped financially as well as with outreach to the community. We hope to have another auction this summer.”
It is Fu’s hope that more residents in Centre County will continue to learn all about Global Connections and also support all the work it offers.
“It encourages me to keep providing intercultural, enjoyable, and inspirational experiences to people, so they will understand the differences, know more about it, and embrace the diversity,” she says.
To learn more about Global Connections, visit gc-cc.org. Jason Klose is a freelance writer from Mifflinburg.