Seminarians Talk about Cultural Differences

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“The hardest thing for me about studying at Calvin Seminary is to be away from my family and friends in Brazil. Sometimes I feel like a bird without wings.”

This was one of first comments made by a panel of six international students studying at the seminary.  They were invited by dean of students Jeff Sajdak to talk about their cross-cultural experiences with faculty and staff at a recent monthly Lunch and Learn session.

Sajdak opened the presentation with a movie vignette that showed a humorous side to the challenges of cross-cultural communication. But listening to the students offer their stories and advice was serious business for those who attended.

The goal of the session was how the seminary, both inside and outside the classroom, can do better at understanding and even celebrating cross-cultural differences. 

At Calvin Theological Seminary, one out of four students represents over 20 different countries outside of North America, so improving awareness and sensitivity really matters to all the members of the community.

Sajdak also framed a desire for faculty and staff to be humble learners, open to what God can teach us through the mosaic of his multicultural world that he so loves.

One area of exploration was the differences between North American educational values and those represented by the home countries of the panelists.

Eric Sarwar of Pakistan explained that students in his country are not encouraged to develop critical thinking skills. Other students agreed that this change in educational environment is doubly challenging for them at times because it takes them longer to compose their critical thoughts in English, their second language. This mental composing time sometimes means the opportunity slips by.

Another difference students noted was the deferential respect given to professors and others in authority.

One of the students explained that it’s hard for him to ask questions of his professors at the seminary because of the ingrained attitude that elders must be respected and not questioned. “Please,” he implored, “give us encouragement to ask questions.”

During the question and answer period, maintenance supervisor Jim Farman recounted how he and Hyun Kwan Kim, a panelist from Korea, struggled through a project because of the cultural differences in how questions are asked and answered.

In Korea, all affirmative questions are answered yes, regardless if that’s true. So when Jim asked Hyun Kwan if he understood a procedure Jim had just explained, the answer was yes—even though there was still confusion.

Farman admitted that this was a challenge for both of them, but their commitment to one another got them to a place of understanding.

BoRam Khan, a woman student from Korea, had a quick answer when asked what she likes best about culture in the U.S. “Ladies first!” she exclaimed.

She was delighted and surprised to have male professors let her enter a room before them or to open a door for her. “This doesn’t happen in my country.”

One of the concluding points from the panel is that the best way to learn from one another about cultural strengths and differences is through natural interactions. This also gives them a less risky place to practice their English-speaking skills.

Team assignments and weekly meetings with mentoring groups were two examples students offered of what they really valued.

A great example of intensified interaction was the trip to Angola Prison in Louisiana last January. All heads nodded when one of the students summed it up: “The more time we spend together, the better we will get to know one another.”

The students closed with words of gratitude for Calvin Seminary and with this tribute: “Even if we don’t share the same culture, we share the same faith, and that’s what really matters.”

About the Author

 

Jinny De Jong, Calvin Theological Seminary

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Comments

I'm curious to know if any African American, Hispanic American or Korean American students were invited to this event?  Welcoming dialogue and addressing the challenges of cultural differences is great, but should not just stop at international students.  Other cultures, who are also from North America, might appreciate a place at the table, as well.

Thank you, Robin, for raising a good point that deserves clarification. 

The event described in the article was a learning event for faculty and staff at the seminary, and was intended to address the challenges of language and culture as we serve international students.  As the convener of the event, I invited the panel members to specifically represent our international students.

Beyond the event described, Calvin Seminary is taking steps to assure the welcome and importance of people of color from North America as well.  For example, we held a Town Hall event for the whole seminary community to lament continued injustice and lack of racial reconciliation following the Eric Garner and Michael Brown tragedies.  This semester the Student Senate is hosting two racial reconciliation workshops for the seminary community.  There is clearly much more to do, but Calvin Seminary is at work to set “a place at the table” for all.

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