Students gather in the Language Learning Center for a roundtable lunchtime discussion, led by native speakers and international students on campus.
When students returned to campus after Thanksgiving break, winter had arrived at Whitman College. But amidst the silent snow, the bright yellow and red house at 26 Boyer Avenue was filled with the sounds of Swahili and Sinhala, and the warmth of cooking Eritrean chapati, Chinese dumplings and Sri Lankan wade.
The fragrances and flavors of many countries filled the Glover Alston Center as part of the inaugural “Around the World in Four Days,” held from Nov. 29-Dec. 2. The cross-campus multicultural celebration highlighted eight areas of the world in the course of the week.
Each day, students were invited to participate in a three-part experience. The journey began with a roundtable lunchtime discussion in the Language Learning Center led by native speakers and international students on campus. Then, in the afternoon, students were invited to the Glover Alston Center for music and cooking. Finally, students gathered in the evening for an open house in one of Whitman’s 11 Interest Houses.
Without traveling more than a few blocks, students had the opportunity to “visit” Japan, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, Sri Lanka, Africa and Spain.
The event was the brainchild of Mukulu Mweu, associate dean of students of intercultural programs and services and the director of the Intercultural Center, and Jennifer Mouat, coordinator of the Language Learning Center, which provides technology support to anyone in the Whitman community who either speaks a foreign language or is seeking to acquire or improve skills in a foreign language.
“We both seek to promote international cultures, and to form connections between people of different cultures,” Mouat said. “We wanted to build a bridge between our two spaces.”
The event was also a chance to spark conversations between international students and students who have studied abroad. On the day focused on Africa and Spain, about 20 students – both Americans and Africans – came together to listen to Lingala music, cook Eritrean dishes and brew Tanzanian tea.
For guest Laetitiah Magara ’13, an international student from Kenya, the Glover Alston Center was a familiar space to gather. Magara meets weekly in the center with Wakilisha Afrika, the African awareness club on campus. She has also cooked in the center with the “Swahili Table,” a group of international and American students who meet weekly to speak Swahili together.
Although the Glover Alston Center has been open for less than a year, at least 30 different groups now use it on a regular basis. Located in a 1905 Cape Cod-style home, the center recently underwent a major renovation, thanks to key donors Kari Glover ’72 and her husband, Thaddas Alston. It now offers a large kitchen, rooms for receptions and gatherings and a number of cozy study and meeting spaces. The diversity of groups that use the space is extraordinary: Club Latino, the Slam Poetry Club, residence hall sections, the Coalition against Homophobia, the soccer team, the Network for Young Walla Walla.
“Clubs use the Glover Alston Center a lot,” said Navkiran Aujla ’13, an intern at the center. “There’s usually one club meeting there every day except weekends.” Sunday, however, is her busiest day; rooms both upstairs and downstairs are full of people studying.
The center’s many walls also are frequently used as a display space. The Coalition Against Homophobia created an exhibit in mid-November to raise awareness about queer youth suicide, utilizing the multimedia capacities of the GAC to show videos on a large screen. From Nov. 7 to Dec. 4, artwork from the Zimbabwe Artists Project was on display, showcasing the artwork created by women from Weya, in eastern Zimbabwe, with the purpose of “communicating with Americans about Zimbabwe’s history and culture, as well as about the artists’ lives.”
Ben Wu ’07, Intercultural Center program adviser, is glad to see the center continue to grow. “The character of the building will continue to change as new classes come in. People will continue to define how they want to see the Glover Alston Center used,” he said.
But although the center can figuratively transport students around the world, Whitties continue to call it home.
“When the food was ready, and we had the chapati and the tea, it was the taste of home. You’re with your people and remembering home, just discussing and laughing,” Magara said. “It’s a bit of Africa right here.”
—Eleanor Ellis ’13