“Where are these students from?” the lady behind us in line at the coffee shop asked, as I helped the international students practice English with their drink orders.
“Colombia. They are here as part of a student exchange project. This spring, we had eight students from Snow College visit their school in Colombia. In fact, we visited coffee plantations and saw how the beans are grown and processed. It was very cool. Now we are hosting these Colombian students here in Utah,” I replied.
“Wow. That is fantastic. They seem like really nice kids. Do you speak Colombian?” the local lady asked as she looked around at the students. “You must. I can hear you speaking to them. Is it like Spanish? It sounds like Spanish.”
“It’s a lot like Spanish,” I answered.
After a few exchanges with the students in their broken English, the woman turned to me.
“This is really great to have these students here. I’ve never met a Colombian before. I’ve seen some movies about Pablo Escobar, but I’ve never actually met someone from the country.”
“I agree,” I said. “When you share stories over a drink it is much easier to relate with someone than watching a movie about their country.”
“When I first came to this small town in Utah, it really surprised me,” said one of the Colombian students. “I had seen movies of the USA, but this town is nothing like Hollywood or New York City. People were much more friendly than I thought they would be.”
We all left the coffee shop uplifted from the exchange.
This story is an example of a larger global issue. Outside the large urban areas, many of us in the United States live in areas where most people around us look, speak, and act like we do. Generally, we, as a human species, have protected ourselves for thousands of years by living with people who are like us. We often speak using “us” versus “them” and don’t understand the “other.” When we encounter people who are not like us, things can sometimes get uncomfortable.
Understanding different languages and cultures can lead to complications. We may have assumptions or stereotypes that are not always true. It is easier to surround ourselves with people who are like us, but life can become more interesting, meaningful and peaceful by stretching ourselves.
In a world that feels smaller and smaller with changing communication, travel, and the internet, it is becoming increasingly important to gain skills of intercultural awareness. Diversity is not always easy—but learning about people who are different, and learning empathy, is important for our planet. We are all members of the same human race and family at some level, and an educational institution can have a significant impact by providing a place and opportunities to interact with others. Having a diverse campus can lead to occasions of engagement with people who are different—in their thinking, speaking and culture.
Since its founding in 1888, Snow College has been as homogenous as many towns in rural Utah. Ephraim, where Snow College is located, is nestled in a beautiful mountain valley with a population that is 89.2 percent White, according to the most recent U.S. Census data in 2015. There are not many opportunities to engage with people from different countries, cultures and backgrounds. Unlike a big city such as Chicago or San Francisco, a local resident can’t walk down the street and hear different languages and eat at diverse ethnic restaurants. Hamburgers and pizza are the norm.
This small, two-year residential college brings students from bigger cities, different states and other countries. The local students and community can benefit from this eclectic group, to learn more about the outside world and build relationships that can last a lifetime. In a changing, more globalized world, the college is taking steps to be more inclusive and diverse. The mission of the college includes the statement, “Provide opportunities to engage locally and globally.”
The college has a Center for Global Engagement, students from 40 different countries, a Multicultural Center, and Office for Diversity and Inclusion that all help to review current practices, create opportunities for engagement and learning, and plan for improvements in the future. Often, having a classmate, teammate or roommate from another culture or country can be a life-changing experience.
Encouraging these opportunities and helping to create projects where students get to know people from different backgrounds is important to the school. Clubs, a Polynesian luau, international food festival, international education week, student life, and residence life have all provided opportunities for the exchange of ideas, backgrounds, cultures, and flavors.
Empathy and inclusion are being woven into the fabric of the campus and making Snow College a better place.
Alex Peterson is director of the Center for Global Engagement at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah.