[helping]Pyramids, polished silver, Aztec ruins and arid weather are to be expected when taking a sight seeing tour of Mexico, but overgrown parks, orphanages, traditional mercados and makeshift baseball fields are seen by the International Volunteer Action Corp (IVAC). IVAC is a service learning program created in April 2006 as a sector of Internationalizing the Student Experience, which attempts to bridge the gap between domestic and international students at MSU.
What makes IVAC unique from other service learning programs, such as Alternative Spring Break, is its emphasis on cross cultural communications. As one of the main components of IVAC, interaction among cultures is promoted in order to better prepare students for a post-college life in which globalization is becoming increasingly prevalent. \”When they graduate, we want MSU students to have global competency skills, so that they\’re not so regional, where they just hang out and know their own culture, but that they also feel comfortable and are able to interact with people from various cultures, thereby preparing them for the present workforce, which is very diverse,\” IVAC founder Carlos Fuentes said.
[kwon]Furthermore, cross cultural communications is also pertinent in most other aspects of life outside the workforce. \”Another part is that it enriches one\’s own life by being more in tune, more connected with humankind from around the world – because we all come from different cultures, it promotes better understanding of people and the world,\” Fuentes said. Recently, IVAC has taken these objectives to other parts of the world, participating in weeklong volunteer programs in Mexico during winter break and Panama during spring break.
In the Mexican city of Cuernavaca in December, 14 IVAC members visited an orphanage where they helped clean, paint and interact with orphan children, and also constructed a baseball field. \”They were a lot of fun,\” international relations sophomore and IVAC co-chair, Brad McDonald, said of the children. \”Before going, you create your own misconceptions no matter how hard you try, because it\’s an orphanage in Mexico. But the kids there were really cool and they were really well taken care of. The kids were really cheery and playful. You would expect them to not be, but they were just really down with having fun.\”
Senior international student Hyun Kwon was also impressed by the children. \”I heard after [the trip] that some of the children were sexually abused and I was amazed. I was really amazed because they all looked the same, even the ones who had a hard time were still happy,\” she said.
For Kwon, who is originally from South Korea, the experience was even more of a cultural eye-opener than most. \”Already the people in the U.S. were strangers to me, but then trying to penetrate the Mexican culture was even harder,\” she said. \”So I think I had a special experience.\”
In Panama City in March, 17 IVAC members had the opportunity to collaborate with a member of the Peace Corps and former MSU graduate, assisting with the maintenance of a hiking trail in a national park. IVAC is the only short-term university program to partner with the Peace Corps. \”We\’re very very excited about this partnership for future endeavors,\” Fuentes said.
IVAC, while participating in international service ventures similar to the Peace Corps, differs in that IVAC also participates in local service as well, such as cross cultural communication workshops in Pentwater, Mich. \”We do that to help teach other people how to become more relaxed talking to others who are different,\” MacDonald said.
As a sector of Internationalizing the Student Experience, IVAC also works to promote cultural interconnectedness among its own members as well as people across borders. \”IVAC uses the platform of service to be able to make students more comfortable in getting together,\” Fuentes said.
By working in closer quarters such as on the Mexico and Panama trips, students from different cultures are able to more easily connect. \”It\’s a lot easier if you\’re living with a group of people from different cultures and you actually have a focus, which in this case is service,\” Fuentes said. \”It begins to emerge, it begins to sink in and people feel more comfortable learning about other cultures because they\’re befriending these people form other cultures.\”
\”Our membership culture is really diverse,\” McDonald said. \”We have domestic and international students, we have students from Taiwan, Mexico and Japan and its just fun to talk to them.\”[brad] Despite the diverse backgrounds, the environment is one of acceptance. \”With my accent I was very stressed out about my English skills, but all of the IVAC members were positive about it,\” Kwon said. \”They made me feel comfortable. No one ignored me because of my English skills.\”
Fuentes noticed the interaction between domestic and international students was elated. \”We\’ve had four potlucks at my house, a very great mix of international and domestic students, and the interaction that takes place, the dialogues [are positive]. I look around the room, it\’s just beautiful,\” he said. \”The students that are getting turned on to the IVAC concept are really becoming engaged and are catching the vision and are having fun doing it. From observing, I know things are happening inside them on both sides, domestic and international.\”
These potlucks are another one of IVAC\’s sponsored events which take place here on campus. Other events include dances at McDonel Kiva featuring world music and sledding nights at Birchfield Park. \”It\’s a really great way to share cultures,\” MacDonald said of the potlucks. \”Plus you get really amazing Indian food.\”
IVAC plans to start hosting international cuisine nights, sampling food from different ethnic restaurants in East Lansing. Then in early May, the organization will be partaking in a five day retreat in Chicago in which they hope to have the opportunity to work with refugees from a shelter.
IVAC meets every three weeks to plan for upcoming events. Any MSU student interested in IVAC is welcome to join, but must go through an application process first and should contact Fuentes to do so. IVAC does not generate income, thus any financial obligations must be accounted for by individual members. Costs for various IVAC activities vary. Large scale trips such as Mexico or Panama cost run between $1,000-$1,500 and generally include provisions such as airfare, ground transportation, food, lodging, medical travel insurance and tourism visits. Domestic retreats such as the upcoming Chicago trip also vary, but are generally less expensive and tend to range between $200-$500.
While the trips may be more than pocket change, the cost is well worth the experience. Kwon said the memories of her trip to Mexico will stay with her for years to come. \”Getting involved with IVAC was very meaningful for me,\” she said. \”I came here to experience a culture that was different from my Korean culture and I met many good friends.\”

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