Penn State alumna Jei-leya Hassan, who participated in GELE in fall 2013, shared her experience from GELE and insights on cultural literacy.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
A: My name is Jei-laya Hassan, and I'm a 2014 Penn State alumna. I majored in public relations, advertising and sociology (College of Communications). I recently moved to New York City to work as an ad sales research analyst for the Travel Channel.
Q: How did you enjoy GELE, and what was the most rewarding part for you?
A: Truthfully, I loved my GELE experience. It was the highlight of the first semester of my senior year and a very refreshing retreat during a typically stressful time of year. The facilitators were remarkably helpful and honest when it came to what their mission for the project was. It was well organized, and it became increasingly evident that every activity had a purpose with a beautiful message behind it, which I really appreciated. It gave an opportunity for people from all nations and of all colors and creeds to come together and share authentic moments together.
The most rewarding part of the experience was that it single-highhandedly showed us all how similar we are by celebrating our differences. I never realized how much I had in common with a Ukrainian teacher here to escape a unjust education system as well as a sorority girl growing up in a military family.
Q: Is there anything from GELE you find is still impacting you today?
A: In terms of what still impacts me today, I'd say I'll never forget the part of the project where we all performed for each other. The cultural differences were evident but so stunning. It showcased how each culture may celebrate differently but we're all celebrating the same things — love, music, authenticity and peace. I still have a red Chinese art piece — I learned that red means prosperity — hanging in my apartment for good luck, and I think of those memories every time I look at it. I also remember a couple that spoke at the project. The wife was from Trinidad and the husband was from Jamaica. In America, that doesn't really seem like two different worlds, but to them it was a big deal to get married, especially because they didn't share the same religion. It was amazing hearing how they dealt with their differences so that their love could grow.
Q: Would you recommend GELE to other Penn State students?
A: I think GELE should be an opportunity that more Penn State students should have access to. I think we all learned so much about ourselves and each other, which could serve as a huge benefit to Penn State students. To be honest, Penn State is like its own little cultural bubble — and don't get me wrong, it's an awesome bubble to be in — but sometimes it's nice to step outside that bubble to remember that there is an even bigger bubble out there that is also worth exploring.
Q: Do you have any additional suggestions for Penn State students to engage with intercultural initiatives?
A: I would say start by taking a course in a different culture that you've never been exposed to. You're never going to learn everything about a culture in one class or by having one friend from a particular place, but what you can do is realize that you know a lot but you don't know everything. Being exposed to a bevy of cultures doesn't make you an expert in it, but it shows you that there is so much more out there worth exploring. Every culture has its positive and negative aspects, and learning that early makes adapting to the changing ethnic atmosphere a lot easier. But I think GELE was the best opportunity I had in college to get an intimate look at some cultures I've never been exposed to.
Q: As a young professional, how do you find cultural literacy important in the workplace?
A: I think that cultural literacy is one of the most important skills to have in the workplace. You will encounter so many different types of people and knowing how to approach them all is very important. You're never going to know exactly what to do or what to say, but knowing a thing or two about someone's culture can easily change the dynamic of a conversation. I work at the Travel Channel, and my research team is very competitive and composed of only four people. My boss is Korean, my manager is white and my counterpart is Jewish. Not to mention I'm Native American, Japanese and African-American coming from a Middle-Eastern background. That being said, cultural literacy is the thing that makes our team as strong as it is, and because of that we're able to relate in ways that we wouldn't have otherwise.
So, to get ahead and be a leader in this world, it's important to have respect for all the different types of people you will encounter. But most of all, to be a global citizen, it's important to know how little you know about the globe. What makes people cool and interesting is their curiosity to find out more about the world. So my advice for current and future Penn State students is simple — be authentic and stay curious.