IN GEAR with culture

By Gus Bode

IN GEAR program, an interactive conversation between international students and rural schools, starts earlier than expected

As Caitlin Cole followed the rest of her fifth grade classmates into the Herrin Elementary School cafeteria Friday morning, the sparkle from Vasuki Manicka’s traditional sari gown immediately caught Cole’s eye.

Cole hurriedly claimed a seat at the front of a long table, as close to the guest speaker as she could, and listened as Manicka, an SIUC graduate student in computer science, talked about her home in Banglore, India.

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Manicka briefly told the eager students about her brown, jeweled dress, her family, some of her beliefs and her reasons for coming to America as part of the International IN GEAR Program, an interactive conversation between international students and local primary and secondary schools about different cultures.

Global thinking and cultural awareness have been the foundations for IN GEAR, which stands for International Network for Global Educational Activities in Rural Schools, since 1986.

In collaboration with the College of Education and the Illinois State Board of Education, IN GEAR has increased from a small gathering of international students and teachers discussing culture to a program for age groups from pre-school to high school.

Beth Mochnick, coordinator of SIUC International community programs, said she normally does not send letters out to schools about the program until the beginning of October. But this year, through word-of-mouth and past successful IN GEAR programs, she had already scheduled 12 international students to venture out to local schools as early as August.

“I have not even sent out the letters; I’m thrilled,” Mocknick said. “IN GEAR is constructive, exciting, intriguing, educational; I am proud of the program.”

Cole sat patiently as Manicka spoke about her culture, but when the college student opened the floor for questions, her small hand was one of the first to shoot up into the air. She again waited calmly as the Indian student answered such questions as, “What do you use to cut your hair?” and “Do you have a McDonald’s in India?”

With her hand still raised high, Cole whispered to her fifth grade classmates, Karlie Williams and Lauren Steinmetz, until finally Manicka called on the young girl.

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“Do you worship cows in India?” Cole asked with a smile.

“We do worship cows, it’s a religious thing,” Manicka replied as the young girl beamed at the answer.

Other questions were asked about regular practices in America, and Manicka, a three-time veteran of the IN GEAR program, said, “My skin is a different color, but I am just the same as you guys.”

Three other students who accompanied Manicka all explained their backgrounds and cultures in different ways to second, third and fourth grade classes.

Students in the two fourth grade classes shouted out, “Wow, a komodo dragon!” and many “awesomes” and “wows” to the poster Martha Setiawati, a graduate student in educational psychology from Indonesia, had compiled for her speech.

Using traditional objects from her culture, Setiawati discussed the importance of shadow puppets, which each have an ancient story attached to them, to the classes, allowing students to handle the items.

She showed one student how to use it, joking, “If you are naughty, you won’t get anything for Christmas.”

Jae Youn Lee, a graduate student in business administration from Korea, also brought in some artifacts. He showed a group of second graders a native flag from his father. Lee, known as “Jacky” to the students from his previous trip, also taught the students how to count to 10 in his native tongue.

One girl in the class did not want to stop there; she wanted to know how to say 13, and Jacky was pleased to explain it to her.

Marinos Van Kwilehlowg, who the children called by his first name, brought pictures of his wife and daughter and read from a native children’s literature book.

Marinos, who is studying political science and is from the Netherlands, said he enjoyed his first visit with the children and would like to come back again.

“Everyone here has helped me so much, and this is a way to give back to them,” he said.

The third graders also took to Marinos very well, giving him hugs and telling him thank you as they left the class after his presentation.

Manicka also received feedback from the students she had never had her past two times in the IN GEAR program. She was given a pile of thank you cards from a fifth grade class before she left Friday morning.

One card had a poem, “Roses are red, violets are blue, I think that India would be cool to visit and you are too!”

Before she gave all the fifth grade girls a bindi, or traditional marking on a women’s forehead, she asked if there were any last questions. All the hands shot up in the air, and the teachers saw the eagerness and attentive nature of the students to learn.

Cole waited once again as Manicka took in the appreciation and gave back to the students by painting the bindi on their foreheads. Cole watched, as Toni Workman was one of the first to get a bindi from their new Indian friend.

Although she had to wait once again to get the bindi from Manicka, Cole was pleased most of her questions about India were answered.

“I just wanted to know why they worshipped cows,” she said. “I think it [the program] was cool.”

Reporter Samantha Edmondson can be reached [email protected]

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