Half a century of worldwide exchange

The West African nation of Cameroon is far removed, both physically and figuratively, from the City of Brotherly Love, but the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s International Classroom is helping bridge that divide.

International Classroom

Promoting intercultural understanding between residents of the Delaware Valley and people from around the world has been a main goal of International Classroom since it was born in 1961 at a junior high school in suburban Philadelphia.

Promoting intercultural understanding between residents of the Delaware Valley and people from around the world has been a main goal of International Classroom since it was born in 1961 at a junior high school in suburban Philadelphia as the Ogontz Plan for Mutual International Education.

Its founders, Evelyn and Norman Palmer, believed the international students attending the many colleges and universities in the Philadelphia area were an untapped wealth of knowledge about the cultures of their home countries. And for half a century, the program has promoted cross-cultural connections among schoolchildren, families and community groups.

Since 1987, the program has been a vital part of the Penn Museum’s educational offerings.

Alimatou Minkeu, a native Cameroonian who is one of International Classroom’s 160 speakers, says he believes the program is successful because “it decreases the fear of foreigners that comes from the unknown.” 

“Cameroon,” she says, “may be thousands of miles away; they speak a different language there, they may dress differently, but some daily activities and emotions are actually very similar. … The program is effective because it allows students to realize how the cultures are not too different from each other.”

International Classroom boasts a roster of speakers from 60 countries. Most are students at Penn and other Philadelphia-area universities, but many are college graduates who remained involved after entering the professional world.

“We have speakers from around the world who share their culture and country through their personal experiences,” says Prema Deshmukh, the program’s manager of outreach. “This is a small step to bring the world closer. It brings textbooks alive.”

With 150 to 200 events each year, International Classroom reaches about 15,000 people of all ages, who listen to speakers discuss issues that range from geography to fashion, economics and music.

“Chinese painting and calligraphy is my specialty, so sometimes I will present Chinese art,” says Sun Mao, a speaker and second-year student at Penn’s Graduate School of Education. “During each presentation students will have many questions or even misconceptions on your country. The program gives you a great opportunity to get things clarified and to let people know more about your country.”

Presentations are held both at the Museum and in the community, and though they are held for everyone from kindergartners to senior citizens, middle school students make up the most common audience.

“I talk about the history, language, school system and general culture of the country,” says Minkeu, a Ph.D. candidate at Drexel University. “I try to focus more on what the age group in the audience can relate to, so each talk is more specific to the age/grades of the students. I also bring along music and actual objects that are used in daily life in Cameroon.”

As Deshmukh knows, the program has an impact. She became an International Classroom speaker in 1991, and still gives talks about her native India.

“I get letters all the time after my presentations that say, ‘You have opened our eyes to the culture. You have piqued our curiosity, we want to go to your country.’ One time a student wrote, ‘I want to get married in Indian traditions,’” she says.

Speakers receive formal training during twice-a-year group sessions, or one-on-one meetings with program personnel, and they are paid an honorarium. The cost for school classes, community organizations, or Museum visitors varies.

International Classroom is supported by program fees, the Penn Museum’s Education Endowment and donations from foundations, corporations and individuals.
Deshmukh believes the program is more important than ever.   

“It’s a global world,” she says. “People are working in the U.S. from foreign countries; many Americans are working in other countries. There are so many international students in the classrooms. People want to learn. They have a desire to learn, and they need to learn. It’s very informal so people are able to ask questions that you would not be able to ask anybody else. So many people will ask me, ‘What is the red dot on your forehead?’ You cannot ask people walking in the street that.

“The audience is very comfortable,” she says. “We are reaching people.”

Originally published on December 15, 2011