Two weeks ago, Jessica Fei ’06 stood in front of a group of New Haven seventh-graders and asked them to jot down what came to mind when they heard the terms “China” and “Chinese-American.”
Jane Bernstein ’05 watched as the students went to work — and quickly realized that the middle schoolers’ understanding of the phrases was pretty much limited to what they had gleaned from popular culture.
“I was walking around seeing them write things like ‘pointy eyes,’ ‘sticky rice’ and ‘fortune cookies,'” Bernstein said. “There’s a real need for cultural education in these schools — through no fault of the kids. People just aren’t exposed to it.”
The desire to bridge cultural gaps was what prompted Bernstein and Connie Chan ’05 to start the Cultural Awareness Program, or CAP, which brings Yale student groups into local classrooms to lead informal introductions to different cultures. Now in its first month of presentations, CAP has already signed up 27 groups — ranging from the Muslim Students’ Association to African dance troupe Konjo! to Yale Friends of Israel — to hold cultural “crash courses” and performances in seven local elementary, middle and high schools.
Bernstein said she was motivated to found CAP after she observed, while tutoring, that few public schools had the necessary resources to teach cultural awareness to their students. Additionally, she said, members of cultural groups at Yale had long faced logistical problems in facilitating outreach into the community, creating a “void and desire on both ends.”
Chan, who is also a Dwight Hall public school intern, agreed.
“There’s a real disconnect between cultural groups on campus and public schools,” she said. “I know one of the groups’ major priorities is to extend education and cultural awareness into the community, but it’s been difficult for people to gain inside access into these schools.”
Rena Sasaki ’04, president of the Japan Association of Yale, said she jumped at the chance to teach students about Japanese culture.
“It was interesting for us because we usually don’t have the kind of opportunity to go into schools in the New Haven area, and it’s a good opportunity for kids to find out about Japan or any other culture,” she said. “The Japanese community in this area is not very big, so they don’t have much interaction with it. This is a really good chance for them to see what it’s like.”
During her presentation at Sheridan Middle School, Sasaki taught students basic Japanese phrases, showed them pictures of her home in Japan and led them in making origami samurai hats.
“The kids had never seen pictures of Japan except for on TV or on postcards, so it was really refreshing for them,” she said.
Fei, cultural chair of the Chinese American Students’ Association, said she also enjoyed the opportunity to change common cultural misconceptions through her interaction with the students. After opening her presentation with free word association, Fei went on to discuss the history of anti-Chinese sentiment in America, showing photos of anti-Chinese massacres and Chinese people working on railroads in the 19th century.
“The students were really wide-eyed and interested,” Fei said. “By the end, they were like ‘Wow, Chinese people weren’t allowed in this country.’ Afterwards, they were all running out in the hallway and telling all their friends what they had learned.”
Both Fei and Sasaki said their respective groups will return to the classrooms for future presentations — something Nick Strohl ’04, a Dwight Hall public school intern who is helping coordinate CAP presentations, said he hopes will be a continuing trend.
“Getting [groups] into the classroom is a positive step,” he said. “It might be their first time in a public school — and hopefully, this would inspire them to do other types of service.”
Strohl said CAP has already had a tangible effect on public school students.
“The kids were more attentive and more engaged than I usually see when I observe classes,” he said. “One of the more interesting things for them — was the idea that they were getting to talk to someone who lived in a completely different culture from their own.”
Chan said she ultimately hopes that CAP, along with other programs promoting cultural awareness, will have a significant effect on public education by exposing students to new ideas at the earliest ages possible.
“I think one of the most important things is to start to introduce cultural education programs at the most elementary level so students get exposed to ethnic studies at an early age,” she said. “This is a tremendous initiative to really begin spreading awareness at a young age, and hopefully it will lead to significant changes in the way curriculum is conceived.”