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Van Allen inaugural International Night

Parents Loudi and Oumou Traore present an ambitious Malian exhibit of traditional clothing, cuisine, drums and artwork with their sons Moussa (second grade) and Boubacar (kindergarten) at Van Allen Elementary’s International Night on Thursday, March 29. The event featured dozens of exhibits showcasing various cultures from around the world as reflected by the student population. (photo by Cale Stelken)

NORTH LIBERTY– It was a frenzied scene as families scampered about, tasting regional foods and exploring new art, language and clothing through the many displays of cultural celebration.
But this was no Epcot theme park.
James Van Allen Elementary held its first International Night on Thursday, March 29. The evening provided a showcase of national heritage, allowing the young student population to demonstrate its diversity and fellow students to familiarize themselves with cultures other than their own.
“The feedback that we received was extremely positive,” Principal Eric Ewald reported, noting over 25 families helped with the evening’s events. “I think it only makes sense for that to be the framework for a new tradition that we have here at Van Allen.”
The North Liberty school kicked off the event with a pizza dinner in the cafeteria from 5:30-6:30 p.m., with profits from the meal to go toward an end of the year celebration. Lining the entire hallway leading to the gym were dozens of national flags provided by the Iowa City Community School District. Student drawings and related artwork of the nations dotted the walls, complementing their respective flags.
During the hour-long event, the walls of the gymnasium were lined with tables celebrating the culture of nations such as Jordan, Mexico, Ireland, Germany, Kenya, India and Mali, just to name a few. Students were provided a “passport” which they would have punched as they explored each country’s exhibit. Once a student had visited every booth, he or she could submit the completed passport to be entered into a raffle for small prizes.
The decision to host an International Night stemmed from efforts put forth last year, when Van Allen Elementary began revisiting its mission statement.
“Part of that new mission statement that we came up with was the words ‘Act with empathy.’ And so after that, we kind of developed an empathy team here within our building,” Ewald explained. “They meet on a regular basis to figure out things that we can do within the school to become more empathetic, and one of the ideas that they had was to host an International Night here in our building.”
The range of cultures and strong attendance certainly made for a vivacious evening, with families zigzagging from table to table in an effort to complete their punch cards. Throughout the night, four young Latinas scurried across the gym floor, adorned in skirts emblazoned with the colors of the Mexican flag and taking turns blowing a small but loud horn to the amusement of fellow attendees. At the Malian exhibit, the Traore family wore traditional boubous, demonstrated hand drums and served bowls of Jollof rice, a popular West African dish, to the intrigue of visitors. Traditional Indian clothing was showcased and young guests were adorned with bindis, a decoration placed on the forehead, considered the seat of “concealed wisdom” in ancient Indian culture. The Kenyan exhibit featured wooden sculptures, beadwork and a poster demonstrating how to say common words and phrases in Swahili (“school” is pronounced “shule”), while the Aguilar family offered tortilla chips, homemade guacamole and a large Mexican flag frame to pose in for photos.
“It seemed to be, by all accounts, a really successful evening last night with a great turnout,” Principal Ewald noted, adding that the following day the faculty reinforced to students how the world is a much bigger place than their classroom, school or city.
“That was a taste, but there’s so much out there to offer that it’s important to expose them to so that they can learn about and hopefully have a better understanding toward,” Ewald insisted.
The principal also cited North Liberty’s diversity as a benefit to the community’s ability to acknowledge and appreciate the gamut of cultures around the globe.
“I think it was a great example of the fact that we are fortunate to be in a community where people are open to learning about other people’s differences and coexisting with people that are different than them,” he said.
“Kudos to our students, our families and our teachers that helped put on such a great event. Hopefully it was the starting point of what becomes a wonderful tradition here at our school.”