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March 28, 2005
BY Eric Rangus
Every year, just after Spring Break, the Quadrangle goes global. Flags from dozens of nations ring Emory’s center square; the aroma of foods from every continent float through the air; music, dance and fashion flare everywhere.
The International Cultural Festival will take place Saturday, April 2, and there is perhaps no single day on the Emory calendar that is more colorful. The many national flags on display have a lot to do with that, as do the traditional dress many international students and area residents choose to show off.
At the center of everything will be Laura Stamey.
“The festival is a way for international students and scholars to express themselves and share a little bit about their culture,” said Stamey, international student adviser in the International Student and Scholar Programs (ISSP) office, which co-sponsors the festival. “You can see the pride and how excited they are about this opportunity to share.”
Stamey is ISSP’s undergraduate adviser and works with around 250 international undergraduates, helping them with everything from financial concerns to filling out immigration documents. (Just last week she was named College Council’s 2005 Adviser of the Year.) Stamey also advises the student committee in charge of planning and running the International Cultural Festival, a yearlong activity.
“The students on the planning committee all have to learn to communicate, which is an art in and of itself,” Stamey said. “But after they are finished, they feel like they could conquer the world.”
Some 3,000–4,000 people attend the International Cultural Festival each year. Many are Emory students, but the carnival-like event is ideal for families, and many take advantage of the chance to come to campus. The festival also is well publicized to area schools, and international students from throughout metro Atlanta—and occasionally as far away as Athens—make the trip.
This year’s event, themed “Destination: Emory,” will be similar to previous ones, with booths set up all over the Quad. Some will offer native foods, while others will show off photos or give mini-history lessons, or chances to play games.
One new feature this year is a partnership with the nonprofit organization WorldPlay, of which Emory’s own Neil Shulman, associate professor of medicine, is co-founder. At this year’s festival, children (including adult children) will learn how to make their own toys. They can keep them for themselves or donate them, through WorldPlay, to tsunami victims.
This is Stamey’s second festival. She came to Emory in July 2003 after spending a year at Georgia State University as international student adviser. Her career choice grew from a longtime interest in world cultures—particularly French culture. While in high school, she spent time as an exchange student in a French-speaking area of Belgium. She was only supposed to spend a year there, but ended up staying three.
“In some ways, my role as an international educator began at that point,” Stamey said. “In many ways I was representing—like it or not—American society. And when I returned to the United States, I had even stronger convictions concerning the importance of international education.”
In Belgium, Stamey learned first-hand the difficulties of adjusting to a new culture. She knew the language just fine, but there were no services to which students could turn for questions about immigration issues. It was something that stayed in her mind when she came home to the States.
Stamey grew up in the Tampa Bay area and, in between trips to Europe, attended Tampa’s University of South Florida, graduating in 2001 with a bachelor’s in international studies. While a student at USF, she interned in the school’s International Student and Scholar Services program. “I learned I could make a difference in the life of a student who comes to the United States to study.” She worked for a short time at USF after graduating, but soon moved to Atlanta for the Georgia State job.
At the time, Georgia State had around 1,400 international students. Emory’s number is smaller than that one-tenth that, but that doesn’t mean Stamey’s work is less intense. If anything, it is more so since she has the opportunity to know more students personally.
“It’s a moment of truth, finding out what students’ real goals are,” Stamey said. “Some want to leave and continue their career elsewhere. Others wish to stay in the United States. We deal with 18–21-year-olds who are making major life decisions.”
Immigration is just one issue Stamey runs across in the course of her job. She designs and implements orientation programs for international students, for instance. And she is program adviser for the SPICE House (Student Program for International Cultural Exchange), an on-campus residence hall for international students. Dealing with students from so many different backgrounds (Emory has more than 50 multicultural/international student organizations) is rarely easy, and almost always a learning experience.
“There are books that teach you how and when to shake hands, but you only learn when you talk one on one with individuals,” Stamey said. “Our office does a lot of workshops dealing with cross-cultural conflict resolution. I learned that, because of one student’s background, voting over LearnLink was considered impolite. Who would have known? The important thing is to establish trust and respect from the beginning. It’s important to be sensitive, but you can’t be paralyzed either.”
Stamey’s own international student experience was a positive one. She remains in close contact with her host family, visiting them every couple of years and hosting their trips to this country. Her other experiences were memorable as well. Not only did Stamey earn her high school diploma in Belgium, but she also spent one year of college there.
Students from abroad couldn’t work during the school year, but when classes were out Stamey got a job working as a cashier at a gas station. Located on a main road, the station was a stopping point for drivers criss-crossing the continent. In the days before the euro, Stamey came across many French francs, German marks and even a few American dollars. Whenever Americans came into the station, she frequently pretended she was a native, just to see what would happen.
“I don’t know if it’s fair to say this across the board, but in that gas station, the Americans seemed to expect that someone would know how to speak English,” Stamey said. “But in general, I really didn’t meet that many Americans; it wasn’t what I was there to do. The more English-speaking individuals I met, the less likely I would master another language or understand another culture.”
Stamey’s thirst for cultural knowledge is still strong. She currently is pursuing a master’s in French literature at Georgia State. Her coursework will be finished in December, and then she will pick a thesis topic.
While a good bit of her job is administrative (she handles much of the logistics and facilities work for the cultural festival) and she does a lot of State Department paperwork for international students, it is the development aspect of the job Stamey finds most appealing.
For example, she recalled a bus trip to the beach she was chaperoning while at South Florida. Most international students, she said, have the impression that Florida is one large beach surrounding Walt Disney World. But the USF campus is an hour away from the Gulf of Mexico—a sad realization for many students.
“I remember hearing conversations among students from warring countries, or countries that had a history of friction,” Stamey said. “They are 19 or 20 [year-olds] and having these normal conversations about everyday life. These individuals are future leaders, and they are making peace. They will go home and not only share their experiences in the United States—loved this, hated that—but at the same time they are going to remember that one person they met on the bus. When it’s time to go to war, these future leaders are going to think twice.”