The University of New Mexico is a home away from home for students from all over the world, thanks to the Global Education Office (GEO.)
There’s a slew of clubs, advisors and opportunities for Lobos who are here for a study abroad program, exchange program, scholarship or research opportunity. Still, in a desert with mostly chile and fast birds, it can be lonely. That’s why GEO is excited to welcome back culture nights.
“When students come and they live in another country, frequently they get homesick. They miss food from their country and they miss their holidays and their family and their celebrations,” International Student & Scholar Services Director Linda Melville said. It's really important that students have the opportunity to celebrate their own cultures, but also that they get to share that with New Mexicans and their fellow students, their faculty members, their advisors.”
Culture Nights began in 2017 when Melville recognized a need. Instead of leaving it up to groups of friends to plan a dinner once in a while, GEO wanted to help facilitate these group gatherings.
“I decided that it was really important for us to help students feature their own country and culture and share that with other people, so we started hosting culture nights that focus on a different part of the world, either a region or a country,” she said.
This idea evolved into an organized, large-scale venue based evening, full of games, performances and food from guests’ home country.
“We get together and we help them plan and execute a culture night. The students decide on what they want to perform. They decide on how to provide information about their country. The group decides whether or not they want to cook on their own or they want to cater the event, and all of our events have been really well attended,” Melville said.
The very first culture night was dedicated to Nepal. While you may not think that there are many students at UNM from Nepal or who identify as Nepalese, there’s a Nepal Research Center and a Nepalese Student Organization on our campus. People who attended this inaugural event and saw over 125 people in attendance came to this conclusion: there’s a need to recognize every campus community because people will come.
“I don't think we've ever had one that was smaller than 120 people. Those are people that are from the country and culture, but also their colleagues and friends from the university and teachers and faculty members who attend,” Melville said.
After that GEO helped play host to nights honoring India, Bangladesh, Brazil, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Korea, China and Japan.
“It does give you some exposure to really what the rest of the world is like and how proud people are of their own country and their own culture and traditions. All the events are all really interesting and colorful,” Melville said. “The other thing that's exciting and interesting about these things is that you get people from the external Albuquerque community who are excited to feature their culture and foster relationships with the students that are on campus.”
International student clubs were reaching out left and right to collaborate with GEO on their own culture night.
“We're hoping to continue to branch out into other parts of the world. It's a lot easier when there's already an existing student organization that can help, because GEO doesn't have to try to coordinate a bunch of individual actors to put something together,” Melville said.
Sadly, that’s when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. There was a dramatic disconnection among students, classes and the campus community as a whole. On top of that, those study abroad students either had to abandon their experiences or remain stuck and isolated.
“Everybody was affected in the social realm. We didn’t exactly know how to behave with other people in our own culture, let alone, crossing into somebody else's culture and learning what is normal and what's appropriate in their ways of behaving and in their traditions,” Melville said.
Although there were virtual attempts to host these nights, there was only so much that could be done to mimic the closeness that came with sitting down with someone at the same table.
“We actually did have some of these culture nights virtually on Zoom. It was obviously not as exciting, not as thrilling, not as fun as in-person. We tried to do it so that people would still have something to do and have something to learn about,” Melville said.
That’s why the return of these events post COVID-19 has been so incredible. Fall 2023 marked the first full semester of culture nights in over three years.
“Coming back from the pandemic, it's been great to see how people are really eager to meet in person and share with others what their culture is about, what their food is about, and their music. We have had a good time,” Melville said.
Latin America Night, Africa Night and Bollywood Night all each hosted hundreds of attendees. GEO students cooked platters upon platters of food, performances generated applause fit for concert halls, and tables were so full, chairs were shared, and barely any standing room was left.
“It may be difficult to just show up at an event where you don't know anyone, so we encourage international students to bring their friends and their classmates and to go and reach out to those folks,” Melville said.
Like Melville said, culture nights are just as important for students and faculty who already reside in Albuquerque. Maybe they have friends who they want to introduce to their culture or want to connect with their culture themselves. No matter the reason, culture nights are an opportunity.
“It's really one of the things that I think international students bring to the university that frequently they don't get to share because they're sitting in class with their colleagues. A lot of times they don't get to talk about themselves and their own cultures and where they're from,” she said.
It’s also a pretty cost-effective way for students considering a study abroad experience to explore a place they may fall in love with.
“I think it's important for our American students at UNM to go and attend some of these culture nights. They may have no experience abroad or money to go abroad, so it's a way of exploring the world without having to leave your own hometown,” Melville said.
“It's important to get out of your comfort zone because if you think about what international students are doing, they came here, they're exploring your culture and they're surrounded by it 24 hours a day, seven days a week for years. You going to one Culture Night is just a little tiny step in that direction.” –International Student & Scholar Services Director Linda Melville
If you’re ever concerned if your event is in the right hands, know that GEO works with UNM students from over 100 countries. Melville herself has been to many other countries, on top of her two decades serving international students.
“I was an exchange student in Greece during high school and I lived in France in college, and I also was a Peace Corps volunteer in Gabon. I also taught English in China for a year and a half with a program called Volunteers in Asia,” she said.
For students a little on the introverted side, Melville encourages to at least try a culture night once.
“When you come to study in another country, the first semester can be the most difficult semester. You start out on an excited high, and then after a couple of months you start missing your language, you start missing your food, you start missing your friends and family, and things can become more difficult,” she said. “You feel pretty homesick and isolated, and you can feel like you're the only one who's going through that, so the culture nights are really good for helping people realize that there's a lot of other people that are interested in their culture, that are from their culture, that want to hear about them and what they have to share.”
Melville is ecstatic to have another set of jam-packed culture nights in 2024. GEO plans to host Bangladesh Night on Feb. 25, Middle East Night on March 2, Korea Night on March 30 and a Holi Festival celebration April 13.
Any UNM organization or club looking to celebrate their country or culture can reach out to Melville via email.
“We have a lot of community members that get involved, so there are countries we've not done yet that I'd really like to do. I really encourage everybody to go to our calendar, look for an event, get out of your comfort zone, go to something unusual or that you might not do otherwise, just so that you can explore the world right from home,” she said.