What can someone learn about the Middle East from a can of beans and a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes?
Quite a bit, it turns out.
“Food is a great leveler, people understand food,” said Sue Dyke, program coordinator of the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s International Classroom (IC) Program. Thus a can of beans—a breakfast staple in many Arab countries—shows how traditions endure into the modern era, while the pictures and legends on the Egyptian corn flakes box show how foreign influences are incorporated into other cultures.
Since 1962, IC has used food and other aspects of material culture as part of its educational mission to introduce Philadelphians from six to 60 to the world and its peoples.
“It is the first program devoted to multicultural education in the country, and it is a model for such programs,” Dyke said. “Our motto is ‘Building bridges between cultures.’”
Besides material culture, IC also gives children and adults hands-on experience with world cultures through workshops focusing on arts and crafts. “We’ve had drumming workshops, dance, paper cutting, and Japanese tea ceremonies,” she said.
Children also get exposed to the subject of archaeology. “We’ve had Penn graduate students go out to a school in New Jersey and create a dig—teachers buried chicken bones in various places and had the kids dig them up.”
And the program offers person-to-person cross-cultural experiences as well. IC trains international students and scholars to give age-appropriate presentations about their countries and cultures to groups throughout the Philadelphia region. “I’ve had students saying they had a better time doing this than they do [serving as teaching assistants],” said Dyke. “We’ve had people who have been in the program for years. They’re very loyal.”
They are also an integral part of an IC program called “Cultures Past and Present,” which brings school groups to the Museum to meet people from a culture or country whose ancient artifacts are on display.
Sometimes, some confusion develops between past and present. “A child asked one of our Egyptian students, ‘Are any of your relatives mummies?’” Dyke said. “Our Native American speaker always gets asked, ‘Do you know the Pilgrims?’”
But most of the questions focus on the stuff of everyday life: What’s family life like? What’s school like? What do you do for entertainment?
“The idea is to show that there are similarities and differences between people, and you don’t have to be afraid of the differences,” Dyke said.
That includes getting students from abroad acclimated to life in the United States. Each fall, IC hosts a welcoming reception for international students attending more than 40 colleges and universities from Scranton to Wilmington.
IC has hosted the reception for more than a quarter century. “The National Association of Foreign Student Advisors is using our reception as a national model,” Dyke said.
IC began as an independent organization that worked with the Museum’s Education Department to promote cultural understanding. Though it was housed in the Museum, the group was run completely by outside volunteers until the mid-1980s, when it was incorporated into the Education Department. Even though the program is now a part of the Museum’s operations, Dyke said it still does its own fundraising. “The Museum affiliation gives us a stable [operating] environment and the prestige of Penn,” she said.
Originally published on May 1, 2003