A Mongolian, Filipina, Georgian and a Honduran all meet in the Castleton University Campus Center. While their respective homelands are spread out across the globe, one thing brings them together.
The energy in the room is equal parts purposeful and inspiring. These are not your typical international students. They are Global Undergraduate Exchange Program students, known as UGRADs.
It is a highly selective program funded in full by the U.S. Department of State.
“What I admire about them is their curiosity and courage. All of them are very passionate about what they are studying but also things that they can learn about culture,” said Coordinator of the English Pathway Program Adrienne Matunas.
Ryenchin Myagmarsuren brought his high level of engagement and humor to the group. As the first Mongolian student to attend CU, Myagmarsuren is eager to dispel certain stereotypes surrounding his country.
“Most people hear Mongolia and they think of Genghis Khan,” he jests. “Some people say we are barbarians, still riding horses. Or that it’s part of China.”
Irakli Heracles Iagorashvili also wants to address misconceptions about where he comes from.
“When we go to other countries and say we are from Georgia, first they think the (U.S.) state and then they think that it’s Russia,” he said in his soft-spoken voice.
He has planned an activity for his Brown Bag talk on May 1.
“I’m thinking of showing them the language and helping them to write their names in the Georgian alphabet.”
Steffi Eunice Ramos, from the Philippines, shared next,
“What’s interesting about the Philippines is how culturally diverse we are because of our colonial experience from the Spanish to the Americans and eventually the Japanese then back to the Americans. For example, I do have a Spanish surname but I speak English, our education system is founded in English. Post-colonial Filipinos would argue that we’ve lost our sense of nationhood because of this, but we could re-center that, mix it all together and make it all Filipino.”
Aside from studying to be a nurse, Shirley Benítez volunteers her time as a Spanish tutor at Castleton University. She too wants to dispel myths about her country, Honduras,
“If you Google Honduras, you will find a lot of bad news,” she said with a furrowed brow. “Most people say it is a dangerous place, and it’s true, but that’s not who we are. I want to give them another view of Honduras and share with them about our culture and our people.”
The UGRAD students are each giving Brown Bag talks about their countries in the town library on the first Wednesday of every month from 12:00-12:50. There may be a taste of foreign cuisine added to the mix too.
Unlike past groups of UGRADs, these students came in the spring semester rather than the fall. Some of them, who had never seen snow before, arrived in Vermont right before a huge snow storm in January.
“They were all troopers, smiling through it all,” said Matunas with a huge smile herself.
They all agree that going abroad has not only exposed them to a new climate and culture, it has allowed them to really see their own cultures; how it looks from the outside.
“Here, I have found what are positive and negative sides of my culture because every time I see something new I compare it with my culture,” Iagorashvili said.
They also agree that while it is often easier to engage with other international students, Castleton’s community has made them feel welcome.
After seven weeks at Castleton University Benítez said, “Before I came, I was told that I might experience racism. Vermont is very kind.”
Ramos added, “Here in Castleton, even if I don’t know them, someone will say ‘hey good morning.’ It makes my day.”
Matunas ended with a word of advice to Castleton University students.
“If you are in a class with any international student, introduce yourself to them, get to know them. They will be really excited to connect with you!”