Columbus, Ohio has evolved into an epicenter for cultural growth. Not only has this cultural awareness shown up in the city, but the surrounding schools as well.
The district is involved in Global Scholars, a relatively new program from which some students in the 2019 class will be the first to graduate with the extra diploma. The program is run by the Columbus Council on World Affairs in order to provide an alternate learning experience for students interested in international careers.
I have been a member of the program since 2015. Four to five times a year, our group loads up on school busses and treks to Franklin University in Columbus for the school day. In order to complete the program, we have to take what we have learned and implement it in a community project of our own.
Through an after-school conversation with my sister, I came to realize how little the district educates about diversity and culture. It was then that my project was born. I was going to mirror the cultural exchange that Global Scholars had provided to me.
I decided to form a presentation for the fifth graders. My goal was to provide the students with a learning experience different from a typical classroom. It took approximately three months to plan, and some skepticism from my sister’s friends, but on March 26, it was showtime.
I began the day with an introduction to culture, and how there are many different levels. Like an iceberg, one may not be able to see below the surface level of information.
The kids were very excited to participate, as I explained this was not a typical classroom setting, but an open conversation. They were jumping at the idea of being a volunteer.
Four first-generation immigrants volunteered to present to the children: juniors Ricky Mamidala, Mia LaPointe, Melat Eskender and Yusra Shegow. They represented India, Haiti, Ethiopia and Somalia, respectively.
“I got the opportunity to teach other students about diversity and culture, and how these impact their daily lives. It was something I enjoyed speaking on, to an audience of people who were genuinely interested in learning which I feel like is rare sometimes” Shegow said.
This group of individuals was what gave the day meaning. Fifth graders from different backgrounds felt like they had someone rooting for them, a role model to follow.
Although all of the presenters were fantastic, Shegow's presentation still echoes in my mind. She had many stories to share, including one about a goat walking directly into a friend’s house in the middle of the night. She was very intelligent and passionate about her heritage. However, one thing does set her apart from the other presenters: she wears hijab.
Nearing the end of her presentation, a student raised her hand, and asked a question that many would never dare to articulate. “What’s that thing on your head?” The other students did not seem startled by a question that adults avoid at all costs.
Looking up to the student with a smile, Shegow answered without a second thought.
“I tried my best to explain to her that women in other countries cover their hair as Muslims because it’s a command from the Holy Book, and person who wear hijab aren’t usually forced to do so. I wanted to try and normalize it for them, and hopefully make them see that people who do wear hijab are still just like them” Shegow said.
The fifth-grader seemed pleased with the answer, and more questions about the goat incident followed.
After her session ended, the student’s teacher approached the front of the room. She apologized profusely for her student’s abrupt, rude question about Shegow’s hijab.
“I actually thought it was very sweet of the teacher to apologize, although I found it unnecessary. I told her I would rather have them ask those questions now at their age, than assume things about other people based only on stereotypes” Shegow said.
Her reaction exemplifies why this district needs to expand its cultural awareness. Far too often we are taught that everyone is the same, and that there is not a difference between us. Our differences must be celebrated, as we cannot keep pretending that we are the same.
This way of thinking does not lead to growth and acceptance. One cannot accept if they do not first understand. By starting this thought process at a young age, the future Pioneers will not only be more tolerant of others, but understanding as well.