WIOC-Urban League initiative introduces middle schoolers to other countries, cultures

Kaylah Cruz Herrera posed a couple of questions to her young audience at Madison’s Toki Middle School: Where do you want to go to study abroad? What language do you want to learn?

Kaylah Cruz Herrera talks to Toki students about Morocco
Kaylah Cruz Herrera talks to Toki students about Morocco

Herrera, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, prompted the sixth and seventh graders, one by one, to respond. A few declined, but most mentioned a language – e.g., Spanish, Tibetan – or named a location – e.g., Paris.

She wanted to make it clear that studying abroad was an experience within their reach, noting that she took advantage of an opportunity as a high school student in Racine.

She talked about her experience as a scholar in the National Security Language Initiative for Youth program, funded by the U.S. State Department, which enabled her to study Arabic for an academic year in Marrakech, Morocco.

Herrera became the first in a semester-long lineup of presenters at the International Club, a new collaboration between the Wisconsin International Outreach Consortium (WIOC), based in UW–Madison’s International Institute, and the Urban League of Greater Madison.

The International Club, offered at Toki on Mondays, is part of a larger initiative, the Urban League Scholars Academy, a two-hour extended-day program at three schools through a partnership with the Madison Metropolitan School District.

The Scholars Academy helps prepare middle school students for a rigorous college preparatory program when they enter high school. The Academy provides academic support, enrichment, and physical activity during the afterschool program, support for Scholars during the regular school day, and support and engagement of Scholars’ parents. Sarita Thomas, of the Urban League, supervises the Scholars Academy program at Toki.

Rachel Weiss prepares tea for the students.
Rachel Weiss prepares tea for the students.

The WIOC-ULGM collaboration sprang from a meeting in early 2014, where two immediate projects were identified – an International Club in connection with ULGM’s Scholars Academy afterschool program at Toki Middle School and the South Madison International Night, a free community event that features performances and food from around the world. The South Madison International Night, held April 17, was a success.

“I was looking for vibrant community organizations that reached a different demographic than the area studies outreach ordinarily reaches,” says Rachel Weiss, assistant director of UW–Madison’s Center for South Asia, who is coordinating the initiative for WIOC. “What excited me about the Urban League is that it shared a similar mandate to provide outreach to K-12 students and institutions, as well as community members.”

WIOC developed 10 weeks of programming for the International Club. At the first session, Weiss gave the students individual journals to keep track of what languages, countries, and facts they learned.

“WIOC was eager to reach students who may have little to no opportunity or exposure to global awareness beyond the classroom, and to offer unique presentations, activities and field trips to expose them to connect them to international cultures within their community,” Weiss explains.

She notes that the International Club enables students from different cultural backgrounds to share bits and pieces of their heritage with peers. For instance, Herrera’s presentation on Morocco opened the door for two of the students to demonstrate their knowledge of written Arabic.

Herrera teaches students an Arabic greeting
Herrera teaches students an Arabic greeting

During this session, Herrera also taught the students an Arabic greeting, “as-Salaamu alaykum.” And Weiss served mint tea and dates to give students a further taste of the region.

“WIOC hoped that tapping into an existing educational program, such as the Urban League’s Scholars Academy, would let us do what we do best: provide first-hand knowledge and experience about cultures from around the world, and to gain more acceptance and understanding to become more global citizens,” Weiss says, “and just perhaps to pique their curiosity to find out more about a unique place, language, culture or artistic tradition.”

Halfway through the semester, the students rated the sessions, giving them four out five stars.

“For tweens, this average felt like a boon and justification that they are interested,” Weiss says. “Some of the highlights thus far have been the yoga session with Blackbird Family Yoga, sampling international food, Irish dance, and generally learning about other countries.”

She adds, “What else do they want to learn about? Canada, Japan, China, Mexico … more about clothes, food, dances, languages and traditions.”

Later in the spring semester, the program included taking students out to explore international pockets in the community, with trips to the Deer Park Buddhist Monastery in Oregon, led by Tibetan language instructors Jampa Kedhup, and to the Thai Pavilion in Olbrich Botanical Gardens, by Katherine Bowie, professor in the Department of Anthropology and director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

— by Kerry G. Hill