The Mason Spirit: The Magazine for Alumni and Friends of George Mason University George Mason University

Culturally Connected

Looking back over 25 years of International Week celebrations

By Colleen Kearney Rich, MFA '95

Although the origins of International Week are unclear, what is clear is that long before Old Town Fairfax was home to a variety of ethnic restaurants, the university was a place where Northern Virginia came to experience international culture.

According to Sandarshi Gunawardena, assistant director of the Office of International Programs and Services (OIPS), who has been coordinating the week for the past five years, International Week is "a pretty interesting and hybrid animal."

Although International Week is recognized as a week to celebrate the presence of students from overseas and is housed administratively under OIPS, which provides assistance to international students, scholars, and employees at Mason on nonimmigrant visas, the week is really the product of what Gunawardena calls "immigrant students."

"These students have grown up here and are different from the visa students," she says. "Their needs and aspirations are different. They are very blended with America, and in many ways this is home for them."

International Week provides Mason's immigrant students an opportunity to share their cultural heritages, and these students are responsible for the bulk of the week's programming—everything from fashion shows to cricket tournaments. The fact that these students live in the area also has its advantages. "Because these students have strong ties to cultural groups in the community, they are able to tap into those resources. For example, we have always had very good performing groups for International Week," she says.

Many of the students are involved in the nearly 20 student organizations that come under the International Student Umbrella (ISU) in the Office of Student Activities. These organizations cover a variety of ethnic groups, including the Armenian Student Association, the Bengali Patriots, and the Caribbean Student Association, and a number of these organizations sponsor cultural nights throughout the week.

The opportunity to enjoy good ethnic food and superlative international music and dance groups has drawn the community to events during International Week since its inception. "These nights really appeal to community members. People come from all over the D.C. metro area," says Gunawardena. "We have all kinds of people here on those nights."

Despite a lack of documentation to be found regarding the early years, Gunawardena has uncovered newspaper clippings from local papers alerting the community to the annual event. After locating a number of boxes in storage, she had been able to piece together the history of International Week through the mid-1980s. One thing that appears to have remained constant is the dinner dance that ends the week.

"It has always been a family event," she says. "Families would come to immerse their children in something international." Some local families remain on OIPS' mailing list and return year after year.

Gunawardena aspires to help make connections between the immigrant students and the visa students so that they both get the most out of International Week—and the whole college experience. A native of Sri Lanka, she can empathize with both groups. She first came to the United States as a Fulbright scholar in 1991.

"You become an ambassador for your country," she says of the Fulbright experience. "I was afforded many opportunities to share aspects of my country and culture and to take my U.S. experience back to my country."

This is the vision of international education and the goal of International Week: to provide opportunities for this kind of exchange, she says.

As part of this year's International Week, Gunawardena is organizing an international student alumni reception and hopes to build on those global connections. Despite all her research on International Week, she realizes the one component that is missing is the personal one, the memories of the international students and participants throughout the years.


Photo (caption below)

In the Office of International Programs and Services, a map just inside the door greets visitors. International students are invited to put their name and country on a slip of paper and pin it on the map.


Photo of Sandarshi Gunawardena

"For these students, George Mason is a starting point, not just for themselves and their home country, but for the world. They can take what they learn here and use it anywhere."

—Sandarshi Gunawardena,
Assistant Director, Office of
International Programs and Services


We Want to Hear from You

As part of this year's International Week celebration, OIPS plans to exhibit a retrospective, highlighting programs, logos, and photographs from the past 25 years. We are also gathering recollections from our international student community. What did you get out of your time at George Mason University? What were some of the most memorable experiences for you studying at George Mason and in the United States? Where has life taken you since graduation? How have your experiences at George Mason shaped your life and your work? Please send your memories to Alumni Affairs, Attn: International Week, George Mason University, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax, Virginia 22030 or e-mail your memories to