During this year's CSB/SJU Festival of Cultures, it was hard to miss first-year students Tiffany Vang and Nicole Winters. One minute they performed together with a Hmong dance group. Later on stage, Tiffany announced student performers before joining audience members who danced to a salsa song by SJU student Valentin Sierra, and Nicole performed a Bollywood dance routine with students from Tibet and Nepal.
The Festival may have provided an outlet for their commitment to exploring the world's cultures, but their exploration began before they arrived on campus.
Growing up in an ethnically diverse St. Paul, Minn. neighborhood, Tiffany struggled to find a balance between her Hmong heritage and being an American.
"Hmong culture is evolving, it's still Hmong, but it is something new that's for us, our generation," Tiffany said. She was also influenced by two long-time friends, SJU student Omar Abdullahi, a Somali and a Muslim, and Cinthya Argueta, a childhood friend whose family was from El Salvador.
"Omar has really influenced me. From him, I learned about the Muslim community, their different sects and how confusing Islam can be. I taught Cinthya about my culture and we started taking salsa classes together; I've been influenced by her culture as well," Tiffany said.
Although Nicole has spent her entire life in Cottage Grove, Minn., her family has travelled throughout the United States and Canada, meeting new people and learning about other cultures. But her learning became personal when she attended a high school summer camp in New York, where she lived with other American and international students.
"It was a starting point for me. I learned a lot about different cultures and learned that although we are different, we all have some similarities. You can still reach out to people and understand them," Nicole said.
Because of their activities in promoting diversity, Tiffany and Nicole were chosen to participate in the CSB/SJU Intercultural Leadership, Education and Development Fellowship. The program provides support for talented first-generation students to build on their leadership skills.
"It's a great program," said Nicole. "We see each other a lot and hang out with each other. It has helped us to learn about different cultures and it allows students from different backgrounds to come to a great college."
Since coming to college, Tiffany and Nicole have chosen majors that complement their interests in diversity. Tiffany is majoring in peace studies with a minor in philosophy and perhaps a concentration in political science; Nicole is pursuing a double major in humanities and philosophy.
"I like learning about different religions and cultures and why people have conflicts with each other," Tiffany said. "Philosophy has opened my mind! I look at the world totally differently now."
Nicole shares Tiffany's interest in philosophy. "You learn to think outside the box. It's more than my opinion, we learn what other people perceive as well."
While the Festival of Cultures was entertaining, the pair believes that such activities are really educational.
"For me, it's educating people about how to embrace culture, what it means to be Hmong, to be black, to be Somali, because there are big differences," Tiffany said. "People go to an event and have fun but they don't necessarily know what Chinese New Year means. We can do a lot more to further the understanding of diversity and culture."