International Week Keeps University Culturally Connected

Posted: March 14, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Colleen Kearney Rich

This year, the university will celebrate its 25th International Week April 10-17. Although the origins of International Week are unclear, what is clear is that long before Old Town Fairfax was home to a variety of ethnic restaurants, the university was a place where Northern Virginians came to experience international culture.

Sandarshi Gunawardena
Sandarshi Gunawardena
Photo by Evan Cantwell

According to Sandarshi Gunawardena, assistant director of the Office of International Programs and Services (OIPS), who has been coordinating the week for the past five years, International Week is “a pretty interesting and hybrid animal.”

Held each year in April since its inception, International Week is housed administratively under OIPS, which provides assistance to international students, scholars, and employees at Mason on nonimmigrant visas. Recognized as a time to celebrate the presence of overseas students, the week is truly the product of what Gunawardena calls “immigrant students.”

“These students have grown up here and are different from the visa students,” she says. “Their needs and aspirations are different. They are very blended with America, and in many ways this is home for them. But they get actively involved in all the different International Week events and are eager to showcase their countries and cultures.”

In fact, the immigrant students are responsible for the bulk of the week’s programming—everything from fashion shows to cricket tournaments. “Because these students have strong ties to cultural groups in the community, they are able to tap into local resources. For example, we have always had very good performing groups for International Week,” Gunawardena says.

Many of the students are involved in the nearly 20 student organizations of the International Student Umbrella in the Office of Student Activities. These organizations include a variety of ethnic groups, such as the Armenian Student Association, the Bengali Patriots, and the Caribbean Student Association, and a number of them sponsor cultural nights throughout the week.

The opportunity to enjoy good ethnic food and international music and dance groups has drawn the community to events during International Week throughout the 25 years. “These nights really appeal to community members. People come from all over the D.C. metro area,” says Gunawardena.

Despite a lack of documentation regarding those early years of International Week, Gunawardena has uncovered newspaper clippings from local papers alerting the community to the annual event. She has been able to piece together the history of International Week through the mid-1980s. One thing that appears to have remained constant is the dinner dance that ends the week.

“It has always been a family event,” she says. “Families come to immerse their children in something international.” Some local families remain on OIPS’ mailing list and return year after year.

Gunawardena aspires to help make connections between the immigrant students and the visa students so that they both get the most out of International Week—and the whole college experience. A native of Sri Lanka, she can empathize with both groups. She first came to the United States as a Fulbright scholar in 1991.

“You become an ambassador for your country,” she says of the Fulbright experience. “I was afforded many opportunities to share aspects of my country and culture and to take back my U.S. experience to my country.”

During International Week this year, Gunawardena is organizing an international student alumni reception and hopes to build on these global connections. “As George Mason University celebrates the presence of our international students from more than 135 countries, we are also extremely proud of the contributions and accomplishments of our international alumni,” she says.

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2005 Mason Spirit in a slightly different form. Used with permission.

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