Graduate student forums break barriers

by John Keenan, UNMC public relations | February 15, 2016

Image with caption: Suleyman Vural discusses Turkey during a

Suleyman Vural discusses Turkey during a "Breaking Barriers" forum in November.

Suleyman Vural was talking about his homeland.

The UNMC graduate student in biomedical informatics had his audience captivated. He was speaking in front of roughly 30 students who have turned out to learn more about Turkey, and Vural was happy to share his love of, and pride in, his culture with them.

Vural's presentation, which was held in November, is part of a new series instituted by the Graduate Student Association, in partnership with the Student Senate and the newly created International Student Association. Called "Breaking Barriers," it is a monthly forum in which international students share information about their homeland with their fellow UNMC students.

So far, there have been presentations on the United States, Turkey, China, and Saudi Arabia, said Dianne Wellems, a graduate student, secretary of the new International Student Association and one of the organizers of the forums. She's been thrilled at their success -- they routinely draw as many as 50 people per speaker.

"It was a very welcomed surprise," she said.

"A lot of our international students realized that many people didn't know about their country or had misconceptions," she said.

"There was nowhere for them to introduce their culture or talk about what their life was like. When they did start talking about their country, everybody wanted to ask them questions."

The forums provide an opportunity for the international students to speak first and present information about their country and culture, including addressing misconceptions or misrepresentations.

Upcoming monthly forums will focus on Mali, Iran and India, Wellems said.

"A lot of the speakers want to do it again," she said. "After they present, they always say, 'I wish I had more time.' They didn't expect so many questions. So we would like to revisit some countries, offer a bigger room as more people get interested, and continue to introduce countries that are represented on our campus."

Graduate Student Association president Tyler Scherr would like to see the events grow, perhaps moving into auditoriums and drawing hundreds of people. The intimacy would be lost, he acknowledged, but he felt the message deserved a wider audience.

"The goal is to embrace the diversity at UNMC and try to break down barriers between cultures, to develop a better understanding of the people you're studying with and working with," he said. "Watching the local or national news, you can see a lot of stereotyping. We wanted to come up with a way to celebrate the beauty of all the different cultures represented on campus and give a voice to all those different cultures, too.

"I don't see why this couldn't be something that could be done across all colleges," he said.

"This campus is diversifying," Wellems said. "Every year we have people from more countries coming in, and more countries are being represented in the Student Senate, the GSA, the ISA and in activities all across the campus. It's important to have events like these, because it's welcoming. It's saying, 'We recognize you have students from different countries, and we recognize that there is beauty and uniqueness in their culture, and that should be celebrated and shared.'"