Seeking Common Ground

The Penn State Global Engagement and Leadership Experience provides a rich international experience right here in Pennsylvania through sparking student conversation and connections.

It's a Saturday night in November, and about forty Penn State students are gathered in a meeting room of the Nature Inn at Pennsylvania's Bald Eagle State Park, about forty minutes away from the University Park campus, laughing amongst themselves and sharing inside jokes as they wait for their next session to begin. 

An observer might assume that these students have known each other for weeks, or even months. But in fact, most of them met only twenty-four hours prior, at the start of the Global Engagement and Leadership Experience (GELE) weekend.

Students pass a feather in a circle as part of an activity at the start of the GELE weekend

GELE Participants Break the Ice

The Global Engagement and Leadership Experience weekend conference begins with icebreaker activities that provide students an opportunity to get to know each other. The conference is held each semester at the Nature Inn at Pennsylvania's Bald Eagle State Park—about forty minutes from Penn State's University Park campus.

Image: Michelle Bixby

A collaborative effort among the Office of Global Programs, Student Affairs, and the Multicultural Resource Center, the weekend-long GELE program brings together a group of domestic and international students representing more than thirteen countries to develop leadership skills and cultural awareness. 

"This is an opportunity for students to take a moment of pause from the day-to-day to sit down and have conversations," says Jennifer Campbell, director of student engagement and operations in the Office of Global Programs. "This experience is meant to help participants understand that, even though the person sitting across from you may be from another country or practice another religion, they are still connected through a shared human experience." 

An International Experience

The Penn State student body represents more than 131 countries, as well as domestic students of all races, cultures, and religions. One of the University's primary goals is to provide students with opportunities to become true global citizens. This means more than just ensuring a diverse student body; it's actively working to bridge the divides among students of diverse cultures and origins. 

"This is an opportunity for students to take a moment of pause from the day-to-day to sit down and have conversations."—Jennifer Campbell

While study abroad and other travel experiences are one way to do this, not all students are able to take advantage of these opportunities. And for international students, their experience at Penn State is their "study abroad." GELE is built on the idea that fostering stronger connections between these two communities right here on campus can, in effect, create a rich global experience.

"This program provides an international experience right here in central Pennsylvania," says Campbell. "At this program, you feel like you're at the United Nations, because you have students from all over the world in one space at one time for in-depth conversations in an energizing, fun atmosphere." 

Moses Davis, director of Penn State's Multicultural Resource Center, leads a GELE activity outside the Nature Inn

GELE Facilitator Moses Davis

Dr. Moses Davis, director of Penn State's Multicultural Resource Center, is one of four facilitators at each GELE weekend. Others include the Office of Global Programs' Jennifer Campbell, director of student engagement and operations, and Jana Clinton, student engagement coordinator; and Student Affairs' Dr. Gina Hurny, program director for leadership development.

Image: Michelle Bixby

Adam Virzi first participated in GELE in spring 2014 after a semester abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. Upon returning to Penn State, Virzi sought more ways to experience other cultures and develop intercultural connections.

"At GELE, I gained some very fundamental tools for cross-cultural literacy, and these tools helped improve my cultural sensitivity and approach interpersonal relationships in a more accommodating and open mindset," says Virzi.

After attending GELE as a participant, he came back in fall 2014 as a student coordinator to help the conference staff provide that experience to a new crop of students. This desire to spread the spirit of connection and conversation sparked at GELE is common among participants and one of the goals of the program.

"I gained some very fundamental tools for cross-cultural literacy, and these tools helped improve my cultural sensitivity and approach interpersonal relationships in a more accommodating and open mindset."—Adam Virzi

"Ultimately, the mission is to affect the community of Penn State and not just the participants," says Virzi. "In addition to taking that initial set of students who are interested in learning cross-cultural skills in leadership and global engagement, we're also putting them back into the community where they're going to spread that message."

The Office of Global Programs' Student Engagement Coordinator Jana Clinton adds, "After providing students with an opportunity to grow and challenge their ideas and beliefs, we want to take them one step further to really think about global leadership and what impact they can have here at Penn State."

The Bonds of Friendship

Often, that impact is a chain of friendships that are formed among students who previously did not recognize the things that they shared in common. In fact, it is these new friendships—both those formed at GELE and those formed later because of GELE connections—that may be one of the greatest benefits of the program. 

"After the formal sessions with intensive, draining conversations, students will still stay up half the night just talking," says Virzi. "Sometimes it's about important issues; sometimes they just get to know each other, hang out, and have fun."

"Despite the huge differences in where you come from, at the end of the day, we're all similar."—Sparsh Saxena

GELE fosters a safe environment where domestic and international students can come to understand one another's backgrounds and cultures and, at the same time, form lasting bonds. 

"Through GELE, I was able to meet more people who are from different continents and countries and who have different religions, ideas, and experiences," says Do Ee Yang, a sophomore from South Korea studying at Penn State Wilkes-Barre. 

Students stand back-to-back as they prepare for a weekend kickoff ice breaker.

Back to Back at the GELE Conference

Students get to know each other quickly through kick-off activities at the Global Engagement and Leadership Experience weekend. The program is held once every fall and spring semesters and accepts forty students—about half international and half domestic. More than thirteen countries were represented at the fall 2014 GELE weekend.

Image: Michelle Bixby

By opening their minds to different cultures, ideas, and viewpoints, students learn how to bridge the oft-perceived divides between people by better understanding and respecting differences and seeking common ground. 

"I think the most surprising thing I learned at GELE was that, at heart, everyone is kind of the same," says Sparsh Saxena, a computer engineering major hailing from New Delhi, India. "Despite the huge differences in where you come from, at the end of the day, we're all similar. That gives me a chance to connect with other people."

A New Perception of Leadership

Saxena says that he applied for the GELE program because of his interest in global leadership: "I have realized that leadership is by far the most important skill a person can have," he says. "And learning to work in that intercultural environment would make me or anyone a much more competitive and capable global citizen." 

Much of the weekend's structured conversation happens through a leadership lens. With the guidance of facilitators like Dr. Gina Hurny or the Multicultural Resource Center's Director Dr. Moses Davis, students examine what strong leadership looks like in one culture versus another, or how leadership is enriched by intercultural sensitivity and understanding. But one of the most important things that participants learn at GELE about leadership is that everyone can be a leader. 

"We say that we want students to think globally and act locally," says Campbell. "Leadership starts with one step, one act, one movement forward. The principal idea we want students to walk away with as far as leadership is concerned is that they do have it within themselves to be empowered to make a difference." 

"[E]veryone can be a leader, and anyone can help others while trying to change one little thing around them. ... Leadership is given to everyone; we just have to know that we have it."—Do Ee Yang

"After participating in GELE, I realized that everyone can be a leader, and anyone can help others while trying to change one little thing around them," says Yang. "We can change one by one, step by step, and engage more people to change with us. Leadership is given to everyone; we just have to know that we have it."

About the Global Engagement and Leadership Experience

The Global Engagement and Leadership Experience is offered in the fall and spring semesters and is currently capped at forty students per session. Applications are now open for the spring 2015 program, to be held February 27-March 1 at the Nature Inn at Bald Eagle State Park. For more information and to apply, visit https://global.psu.edu/gele.

In spring 2015, the Office of Global Programs will also offer a second session of GELE for students attending Penn State campuses other than University Park. These students should contact their local Global Programs offices for more information.

The team that makes GELE possible includes the Office of Global Programs' Jennifer Campbell, director of student engagement and operations, and Jana Clinton, student engagement coordinator; Dr. Moses Davis, director of the Multicultural Resource Center; and Student Affairs' Dr. Gina Hurny, program director for leadership development.