It’s not exactly common for a fourth grader to travel around the world; but in Springfield, they can at least get close in a matter of hours.
Missouri State University’s annual International Cultural Fair was held on Wednesday, Sept. 25 with hundreds of elementary and middle school students in attendance to learn about cultures from all over the world.
The modern and classical languages department hosted the event. Heidi Backes, assistant professor of Spanish in the department, organized it.
The culture fair consisted of about a dozen booths spread throughout the Plaster Student Union ballroom and allowed the third through sixth graders to go on what Backes described as a “virtual trip around the world.”
Each booth represented a different country or culture. Backes, who said she does most of the planning and preparation for the event herself, tries to represent the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa, swapping out different countries each year on rotation.
Backes said children come from Springfield schools as well as some nearby towns for this field trip. When they arrive, they get a tote bag and passport booklet before they start their journey around the world.
At each booth, the children are greeted in the country’s native language. They then learn some basic vocabulary and where to find the country on a map or a globe.
At every booth there is also a cultural lesson along with a binder full of photos that are representative of the various areas, regions or cultures in the country.
Before the students move on, they participate in some sort of activity related to the culture. Backes said she sometimes changes these activities from year to year to keep things fresh for returning students.
Emily Freitas, junior anthropology and Spanish major, has volunteered for the culture fair for the past three years. She said she’s worked several booths and their activities. For Spain, the students practice Flamenco dancing. In Indonesia, they discuss and try Gamelan, a traditional type of orchestra music.
Whether the activity is physical, musical or, in the case of Kenya’s beaded bracelet crafting, creative, Backes said they are all meant to simultaneously engage and educate the students.
Both Freitas and Backes said exposing children to this sort of event is important to their development and rewarding for the volunteers.
“I think it’s really important to do little things like that with kids while they’re young so that as they grow up they have a sense of the world,” Freitas said. “They have a sense that there are so many other people, so many other cultures and that each culture and each country is important in its own right.”
Backes has been organizing the International Cultural Fair since before she started working at MSU. She originally hosted the fair at her previous job at Drury University. It’s been an annual event at MSU since 2017.
She said her inspiration for the event came from her childhood experiences. Backes is from Wisconsin, and went on a field trip to the Milwaukee Holiday Folk Fair each year.
The Milwaukee Holiday Folk Fair helped serve as the basis for the cultural fair she would later create in Springfield.
“It so opened my eyes to all of the life around me,” Backes said. ”All of the different cultures and the different languages and different traditions that I really wanted to be a part of ... That’s what I wanted to emulate here.”
Backes said she usually has more than 300 volunteers for the event, either helping with setup the night before, chaperoning the children around the event or acting as booth leaders for each country.
Backes said many volunteers come from the modern and classical languages department, with students representing the countries whose languages they’re currently learning. She also reaches out to the various international clubs and organizations at MSU and said she is always looking for more volunteers from elsewhere on campus.
For Backes and the volunteers who work the event year after year, the fair can be very rewarding. Backes said she gets plenty of positive feedback from the grade school teachers.
Backes said practically every booth is someone’s favorite. One little boy, she said, has apparently kept his tote bag for several years. With the help of volunteers, the bag became covered in his name written in various languages. He would show it to his teachers with pride throughout the year.
“Even just little anecdotes like that make it so worthwhile,” Backes said. “It’s a lot of effort. It’s a lot of work to put together, but it’s obvious that it’s making a positive impact.”