International Spotlight: Cynthia Smith, assistant director of outreach programs/international cultural team

By: Danilo Tchoupe

The International Cultural Team is a special team of international student educators and an excellent means of improving public speaking and communication skills in preparation for professional careers. Students learn about and interact with persons in the USA, while providing a valuable service for the state.


DT: Tell us about yourself, your first days in at the University of Arkansas and at the International Students & Scholars office.Cynthia-Smith100px

CS: I started in the International Students & Scholars office 15 years ago in February of 2000. Back then our office was called IPO (International Programs Office). I started when my daughter, Bekah was 2 months old. Before working in the office I was an elementary school teacher for 10 years. One of my first memories in the office was looking through my desk and finding a photo album that I was in! There was a photo of me as a sixth-grade teacher sitting at my desk, watching an international student make a presentation in my classroom!


DT: Tell us about International Culture Team and how you have seen it grow over the years.

CS: A few weeks after starting my job I decided to call my first “ICT” meeting. I emailed everyone that I had on my list (which was about 20 or 25 people) and asked them to meet me in the Union for coffee and cookies. About 10-15 came, who were mostly from Ghana, and that was my first ICT meeting.


DT: Prior to joining the ISS office, did you worked with international students? How was the first experience here with the international students?

CS: Twenty years ago my husband and I moved from California to Arkansas.  I worked with very diverse students in California, but they were not international students.  We missed the diversity of California and decided to join the Friendship Family (now iFriend) program within our first few months of living in Arkansas.  I got to know international students through the Friendship Family Program. I also taught the children of international students at the school where I taught near the University (Bates Elementary). It was my love of teaching the international kids and getting to know students through the Friendship Family Program that made me want to work in our office.


DT: Why do you invest your time in getting international students out there to share about their culture?

CS: I invest a lot of time getting students involved with outreach programs because the programs that I work with directly impacted my life, career and future.  I know that these programs can be life changing for others as well. Those for whom it is not life changing, it is certainly enjoyable. I know that the more I invest in the international students through our outreach programs, the more lives, like mine will be touched in the community. I also know that the more international students’ lives that are impacted positively while in the U.S., the more our country and world will be impacted. I have been told over and over by student alumni what a difference these programs make in their time at the University of Arkansas. Knowing this fuels me to continue investing in programs that bring the world to the campus and community.


DT: What are some of the challenges when working with international students and their cultural background?

CS: One of the greatest challenges in working with a variety of cultures is misunderstandings! I know that I have made cultural errors and fear that I have hurt feelings sometimes when I did something that I didn’t know was “wrong” in another culture. Another example of misunderstandings is not knowing when a student who comes from an indirect culture is telling me no. I may think that they are saying yes, or even maybe, but what they are trying to communicate is no. When they don’t show up for an event or something else has happened, I then realize what happened. I also am way off on “time.” I tend to run a little late, but some of the other cultures that I work with “run a lot later” which can be interesting at times.


DT: Do you have a message for our worldwide international students’ alumni community?

CS: My message to our world-wide alumni community is to please keep in touch!  If you have lost contact, please reestablish it now! There is nothing that makes us happier than to hear from a past student, learn about what you have accomplished, where you are now, what you are doing, about your family …. I would also say that through ICT you made a big impact on our corner of the world when you lived in Arkansas and I hope that you will continue to positively share your culture/yourself and learn about others around you. Be the bridge that connects different types of people in our world.


DT: If you won the lottery, what countries will you visit, and why?

CS: This is really difficult to decide where I would travel if I won the lottery, I need a world tour! I would start by visiting my family in Germany, it’s been way too long since I have seen them. Next I would travel to Asia and visit Indonesia (I miss all of our Bush/Clinton Scholars), Japan (and see all of the students that we’ve hosted), China (and visit my Chinese families) and then travel to many countries in Africa (too many to mention!).  I would have to come through the Caribbean and visit Panama on the way home.

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