Inside USD

International Students Experience Mardi Gras, USD-style

Friday, February 27, 2009

Nishiki Bhavnani is a freshman at the University of San Diego and everything, naturally, is still new. A native of Bombay, India, Bhavnani misses her homeland, but she still uses experiences there to help her assimilate better here.

Tonight, for instance, Bhavnani will be among many new friends dressed in colorful attire to attend the International Students Organization’s International Mardi Gras Festival beginning at 7 p.m. in the Hahn University Center’s Forums A and B.

“Being away from home and in San Diego, it’s really far away, but something that brings us together is art and culture,” Bhavnani said. “One example of Mardi Gras for us would be a celebration of spring. We dress all in white, and others throw colors on you. Both events have colors and people coming together.”

On Thursday in the United Front Multicultural Center, Bhavnani was among several students who were busy decorating and personalizing masks to wear for tonight’s celebration. “Back home, we are a democratic country, and we celebrate every religion and every holiday. This experience is a little different because I’ve never been exposed to it, but with the mask, the beads and the colors, it looks really exciting and inviting. I’m looking forward to it.”

To hear a student express excitement for this event makes Greg Grassi, assistant director for USD’s International Students and Scholars and the ISO adviser, happy.

“Many of our international students don’t have an understanding of Mardi Gras, just being at a Catholic institution or what Lent is and how it works, so I think this is a good cultural experience for them,” said Grassi, who also made a mask with the students on Thursday. “It’s a nice cultural lesson and they’re obviously having a good time.”

Grassi expected tonight’s Mardi Gras event, which concludes USD’s weeklong University of Diversity celebration, to draw as many as 200 people.

Grassi said USD is home to more than 350 international students and scholars. Of those international students who are currently in the United States on a visa, 66 countries are represented on campus.

“We’re increasing the number of exchange students who come here for a semester or a year, and we’re also sending more of our domestic students internationally,” Grassi said.

Michiko Sasaki, a native of Kyoto, Japan, transferred to USD in the Fall after spending two years in Portland, Ore., to attend Lewis and Clark College. A psychology major, Sasaki was also attending the mask-making event Thursday and said she’s enjoying her time at USD.

While the academic rigor, she admits, is tougher, Sasaki says, “there are a lot of opportunities for me to get involved and to do something fun like this here. It’s a chance to meet many new people from different countries.”

She also got excited at the prospect of attending next month’s annual Kyoto Laureate Symposium honoring the three winners of the Kyoto Prize. Canadian Charles M. Taylor, the winner of the 2008 Kyoto Prize in the Arts and Philosophy category, will speak March 20 in the Shiley Theatre. It’s an event that should give Sasaki a sense of home, but she’ll experience it as a Torero.

For Catherine Xu, a first-year student in the MBA program, her decision to come to USD from China was aided by California’s good weather, a recommendation from a friend who attended college in San Diego and her own familiarity with Western culture through time spent in the cosmopolitan city of Shanghai. Xu was also prepared for the culture diversity in the United States, as she grew up in a Chinese province with more than 20 minority cultures.

“I’d see different celebrations in the different cultures. There is a long history of what they worship, what they believe in,” she said.

Xu was looking forward to tonight’s Mardi Gras event and learning more about its meaning. Her mask featured several black feathers. “I chose black instead of the other colorful ones, but to me, black is not dark or a bad thing. If you paint, when you put all the colors together, it comes closer to black. My message is if we bring everything together, it looks like black, but it has different elements.”

And if that’s not a clear explanation, she also offered this: “Black is simple and it will go really good with my black dress!”

— Ryan T. Blystone

For more information about the International Students and Scholars program, go to: www.sandiego.edu/oiss/.

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