International Education Exchange Council encourages global awareness

Sonoma State University students travel both to and from foreign countries. The college hosts international students from places as varied as China, Japan and Germany, while local students flock overseas to study abroad in Europe and beyond.

Students looking for a place where local and international perspectives can converge have an outlet in the International Education Exchange Council. This club provides a place for international and domestic students to learn about other cultural perspectives. In addition to hosting weekly Thursday meetings in the International Hall, the council hosts activities like hikes and Giants baseball games for its diverse members to experience together.

Hope Ortiz, the International Education Exchange Council’s club advisor, said it has engaged with students from “multiple dozens of countries.”

“Sonoma State students any given semester will go to… 20 [to] 21 various countries around the world,” Ortiz said. “And then we’ll receive students from an additional five to 10 countries.”

Ortiz, who is also the international and exchange programs advisor, said the student-run organization is a “repeated idea” from other campuses, such as San Francisco State University. It’s one of many entities hosted by Sonoma State’s Center for International Education, along with study away programs and the National Student Exchange.

The center also houses the International Ambassador Program, from which “active members in the club” plan its meetings and events, Ortiz said. 

“The [International Education Exchange Council] and the ambassadors are the… social glue that holds everything together,” Ortiz said. “They really create an environment and community for these exchange students and our returning students.”

Simone Landis, president of the International Education Exchange Council, said she joined the council before studying abroad in Spain for the 2015 – 2016 school year. She took part in a “mentor-mentee program” through the council, where students who want to visit a particular country can talk with others who have been there before.

Landis said the council and its events change each semester depending on which countries are represented in the community.

“It’s a very diverse club just because we have students from all over the world, which is really unique because outside of [the International Education Exchange Council] you never really notice international students,” Landis said. “I honestly didn’t even know we had as many as we do before joining the club.” 

The council’s Thursday meetings, known as Coffee & Culture, are based on various themes that pertain to multiple cultures. At a recent meeting, students discussed how people across the world celebrate Easter, according to Landis.

Previous Coffee & Culture meetings have been centered on occasions like St. Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras and the Super Bowl, according to community engagement chair Diana D’Alessandro.

These meetings help expose Sonoma State students to a wider cultural perspective, which is helpful for “primarily a Caucasian campus,” Landis said.

 “This is a very central place where international students, people from all different backgrounds, come together to share their unique backgrounds and experiences,” Landis said.

Of the council’s many trips, Landis said she most fondly remembers an overnight cabin trip from the fall 2016 semester, when a former member allowed at least 40 council members to stay at his property in the woods. Both incoming and outgoing students took part in this activity.

“We tried to plan one this semester, but since we didn’t have a house that easily available it was a little more difficult and a lot more expensive,” Landis said.

Most council trips require a fee beyond the $3 entry charge required for lifelong membership, but some can be subsidized if the council receives enough financial support from on-campus donations and fundraising, according to Landis.

“We haven’t done much fundraising this semester,” Landis said. “That’s something we’re going to focus on a lot more next year.”

The council is not the only on-campus organization to promote communication between incoming and outgoing students. The Sonoma Scouts, which just originated in April 2017, are a series of students who study abroad and convince international students to visit Sonoma State, according to international student coordinator Becky Petrow. 

“These students are going abroad anyway… we have people, Sonoma State representatives around the world through our study abroad program,” Petrow said. “Why not utilize them to spread the word about [Sonoma State] and try and encourage more international students to come here and facilitate this cultural exchange?”

Petrow said it is the “best practice” for programs like the council and Scouts to integrate incoming and outgoing students together at Sonoma State.

“Studying abroad is a transformative experience… bringing them into this club is a great way to get them feeling like a part of the community,” Petrow said.

Ortiz said it is important for Sonoma State students from any country to understand “how they do contribute to this community,” and that the council has helped raise this cultural awareness.

“Just by talking to people, you can get a different cultural perspective and understanding,” Ortiz said. 

The final Coffee & Culture meeting of the spring 2017 semester will be held May 11.