Students talkcultural conflicts

by Douglas Rojas

University students and members of the University community gathered Saturday on the St. Paul campus to discuss cultural differences at the 10th Intercultural Encounters conference.
About 105 people participated in this year’s conference, focusing on cultural conflict within American communities. In a series of workshops, participants addressed issues of cross-cultural communication and class conflict. Sessions also explored tools to facilitate discussions to come to an understanding of cultural differences.
“We are not trying to solve the world in one day,” said Barbara Kappler, an intercultural trainer with the International Student and Scholar Services. She said the conference would be a success if people left with new ideas and a commitment to keep talking about the issues raised.
The conference has been held 10 times since 1990. Organizers seek responses from participants to plan the next event, sometimes leading to several conferences in one year. Past conferences have included opportunities for activism, such as renovating low-income housing in the nearby St. Paul community.
But feedback from conference-goers led to this year’s emphasis on improving interpersonal communication rather than on direct activism.
“We wanted to model how people approach conflict,” Kappler said. However, she added, bringing together the concerns of diverse communities can be a very challenging task. Not only do different communities face many kinds of conflicts, they have different ways of resolving problems.
Cultural conflicts, said Tex Ostvig, an adviser for New Student Programs and a conference workshop leader, can always lead to new insights and positive experiences. Still, he said, people need to define for themselves what community means.
“Without having a sense of community, you don’t have an idea of what conflict is,” Ostvig said.
At the University, international students tend not to participate in organizations other than international student programs, said Gabi Schmiegel, a foreign student adviser for international student services. Therefore, American and international students don’t interact much with each other.
“Events like this can build bridges between both groups,” Schmiegel said.
This kind of conference is particularly important in multicultural societies like the United States, said Christine Soudaly, a junior in international relations.
“We have to find effective ways to communicate and avoid conflict,” Soudaly said. “People concentrate on differences rather than on similarities.”
One of the workshops focused on class conflict and how society drives people to seek higher positions and more money. Participants were divided into groups to compete for a $100 prize by dividing points among themselves.
Some gave away their points to an individual who started with more points, hoping that the individual winner would divide the prize evenly. Others sought to share the points evenly.
In the end, it didn’t matter, because there was no award. The game’s organizers were trying to prove a point.
“I felt pressure to win,” Soudaly said. “It made you think on what society is like.”
Organizers also incorporated music and art to demonstrate some of the conference’s goals. The a cappella vocal ensemble, Signature, and the Ecuadorian folk music group, Ingapirca, blended modern gospel and jazz with traditional South American music.