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Bringing The World To Topeka

Bringing The World To Topeka

Emma Highfill and David Vincent | Photographers

Washburn University brings a global perspective to Topeka by employing many professors who began their lives in other countries and hosting students from around the world. Baili Zhang, director of International Programs at Washburn, was born in China and first came to Topeka as part of an exchange program with Topeka Public Schools to assist and observe in classrooms. He earned a master’s degree at Washburn and has since spent more than 20 years working for the university. Zhang says many Washburn students and residents of Topeka might not have the means or opportunity for international travel, but they can experience the broader world through interaction with international students.

“Our program brings international students and a small sample of the world to our campus and community so that our students and citizens can learn about and from them while they learn about and from us,” Zhang said. “We hope this type of organic interaction can foster inter- cultural understanding and mutual respect, and enrich our learning and living.”

Zhang says international students enrich our community in many ways. For one, meeting people from different backgrounds increases tolerance.

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“When people with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints co- exist in the same community and interact, they get to know one another better, which often leads to more understanding and less fear,” Zhang said.

He also notes that interaction between people from different backgrounds can lead to creativity in problem solving. And if that’s not enough, international students also mean some serious cash flow for the community.

“International students impact our economy more than many people realize,” Zhang said. “Through spending on tuition, food, housing, transportation, and many other service products, they contribute to the economic activities in our communities.”

Zhang said that according to the U.S. Department of Commerce and NAFSA, international education is the nation’s sixth largest export sector. Think of it as the U.S. “selling” education services to the rest of the world. Around one million international students nationwide—5 percent of overall U.S. college enrollments—contributed nearly $37 billion to the U.S. economy and created or supported more than 450,000 U.S. jobs. Last year, 10,231 international students studied in Kansas, spending more than $261 million in local communities and supporting 2,696 jobs.

David Price, associate professor of marketing at Washburn and Australia native, notes that professors with an international background can help broaden student perspectives.

“Many of our students have not experienced life outside of the United States and even perhaps outside of the Midwest region,” Price said. “International faculty can bring some of that international cultural experience to them in the classroom.”

Price first came to the U.S. to attend Washburn University on a tennis scholarship. He now works with the Entrepreneurship and Innovation department and serves as the assistant coach of the WU men’s and women’s tennis teams. Like Zhang, Price sees value in bringing people from many backgrounds together.

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“It changes our perspective, the way we see ourselves and the world,” Price said. “When we look at a challenge, event or a problem, the more perspectives you get, the more options you have to find solutions. It could shift anything really, from the way we use language, technology, social organization, nonverbal behavior, and the perception of time.”

Price also points out the practical value of international perspectives for business and the Topeka economy.

“A diverse, cross-cultural community provides an advantage when competing in foreign markets,” Price said. “A Topeka business with a cross-cultural base increases the likelihood that they will have a competitive edge abroad.”

It is hard to think international without considering food. Specialty markets bring the world of international food to Topeka residents. TT Asian Grocery, located at 2831 SW Wanamaker Road, is an Indian Market with a large selection of imported and fresh goods. Owner Telson Thomas was born in India and has lived in Kansas for nine years. He opened his first store in Overland Park to meet a demand in that community, and then opened a store in Topeka after hearing from many customers that they were driving an hour to shop. Thomas says the response has been rewarding.

“It means a lot to our customers that they are able to buy all of their Indian spices and fresh vegetables,” Thomas said.

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On a recent Friday evening, the Topeka TT Asian Grocery store was lively. A television played an Indian reality show, and customers chatted while they examined produce and queued up in a quick-moving line to buy groceries.

Thomas says he believes that food is a common ground that brings people together.

“We are living in a multicultural world,” Thomas said, “but everyone eats! This way people will be able to try different spices, produce, snacks and sweets, and share something that we have in common.”

Thomas also believes that small businesses are a great way for immigrants to both give back to a community and find their place in its fabric.

“Small businesses give immigrants a chance at a better life and to build friendships, and we also give people a better understanding about the ethnic community that they may not be familiar with,” he said.

KANSAS BALLET ACADEMY Alexander Smirnov and Stephanie Heston bring the international world to Topeka through the art of ballet. The husband and wife team own and operate Kansas Ballet Academy, where they teach a Russian training program called the Vaganova Method, a progressive training designed to build strength and skill gradually while avoiding injury. They are the only school in the region that teaches with this method. Smirnov is proud of what the school brings to the community.

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“We teach the art form of ballet,” Smirnov said. “It’s not just moves; it’s a language. Our dancers can go anywhere in the world.”

Smirnov was born in Russia, where he began his training as a dancer at the age of 10. Heston was raised in Topeka, and it was here that her passion for dance was ignited. When she went to New York to pursue her professional career, though, she realized she had missed out on an important aspect of ballet—a connection to the international community of dance. Smirnov and Heston founded Kansas Ballet Academy to connect dancers in Topeka to the broader world of dance. They encourage their dancers to “dream big,” to consider the wider horizons of the world beyond our city boundaries.

One way they share the world with their students and with the community is through their annual presentation of the “Nutcracker” ballet. This world- class production includes live music performed by the Topeka Symphony.

“We bring in international guests who teach master classes and share the stage,” Smirnov said. “For dancers and ballet fans, this is like sharing space with an NBA star. It inspires our dancers to new heights.”


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