McDonough Musings: International Fest – A 2021 Revival of Vibrant, Global Cultures

Students taking part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony

A woman in a yellow kimono, with her hair slicked back deftly, flips over a small, wooden ladle in her hand after pouring hot water in a clay bowl. The water is used to make green tea, which is then carefully served on a wooden tray to one participant in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

The tea ceremony was part of a larger annual event at the school called International Fest. It has been held for years around November to celebrate the diverse cultures of students attending the MBA program at Georgetown. This year’s International Fest was more special than previous years because it marked the event’s triumphant return to in-person festivities after taking on a virtual format last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve been calling it a revival of the International Fest,” said Marcela Colmenares, the student government’s VP of International Students and one of the key organizers of the event (which featured a host of activities including an international buffet, internationally themed tabletop games, and a show where MBA students danced, sang, and showcased their traditional attire). Pulling the event together had its ups and downs because of fluctuating COVID-19 measures that imperiled some of the activities early in the preparation process that took months.

“It was a whole process because we didn’t have a point of reference for an in-person International Fest,” said Colmenares. “This year one of our goals was to inspire people so even more people will take part next year,” she added.

‘Make your own matcha’ booth


There are more than 46 countries represented in Georgetown’s MBA program, and the importance of having a global mindset is one of the key values students there are consistently taught. And what better way to experience the many countries and cultures at Georgetown than at International Fest?

“Most people (in the United States) see tea as grab and go, or a weaker version of coffee. Not a lot of people know the formal way of experiencing tea and enjoying tea,” said Alan Liu, president of Japan Society who organized the tea ceremonies, which involved a tea master visiting from Kyoto, Japan.

Students could also try on colorful yukata, a traditional Japanese garment, and make their own matcha. Upstairs in a different room, smaller groups of students took part in a traditional Chinese ceremony where they learned how to smell and observe tea leaves, in addition to other traditional rituals.

The day the traditional tea ceremonies were held, students were also invited to enjoy tabletop games from around the world.

“We wanted to showcase some of the classic games that people grew up with, often the first touch points someone has in connection to playing board games with their families,” said Bhavin Patel, president of the Tabletop Games Club, which provided games representing or inspired by countries like Japan, China, India, and Portugal. Novice and experienced players alike could be seen huddled in small groups playing Mahjong or Ludo. Music being played in the room was occasionally interrupted by exclamations from winners and those less lucky.

Students observing Japanese teawares


On the last day of International Fest, more than 350 students and guests filled the Shea Commons of the Rafik B. Hariri Building at Georgetown, home to the MBA program, to experience food from around the world that other students had prepared.

A total of 30 foods and desserts were available at the international buffet, including waakye from Ghana, Singaporean noodles, rajmah chawal from India, dalgona from Korea, lahmacun from Turkey, tembleque from Puerto Rico, and Venezuelan arepas.

“I was really happy to show my food from Argentina,” said Franco Forti, a second-year MBA student who brought three types of empanadas and chimichurri for International Fest. “The food took four hours to cook in total but disappeared in 10 minutes!”

Another hit at the buffet was the Korea table, where guests could try their hand at ddakji, a traditional Korean game using folded paper tiles, as featured on Squid Game on Netflix. Those successful at flipping the colorful paper tiles prepared by the Georgetown Korea Association were allowed to take home dalgona in small tin cases, a caramel-colored traditional Korean treat made from sugar.  No face slaps or imminent death seen on Squid Game were allowed at International Fest, joked instructions at the Korea table.

Bollywood dance performance


Then came the highlight of the evening – cultural performances and a fashion show at Lohrfink Auditorium inside Hariri. The hour sped by quickly as the audience was serenaded by talented classmates who sang tunes that included a Chinese traditional aria and Bollywood songs accompanied by a ukulele.

A fashion show featuring models from the MBA program drew loud cheers and applause from the audience as their classmates showed off traditional colorful garments from countries like Ghana, Japan, Liberia, and India, complete with commentary regarding the symbolism and history behind the outfits.

“It was such a meaningful learning experience,” said Triveni Gubbala, organizer and emcee of the fashion show. “All the participants were very active and hands-on; they even wrote their own introductions.”

Marthaline Cooper, a second-year MBA student who wore an outfit from Liberia custom-made from cloth called Lappa, said she felt the fashion show was a great celebration of diversity and the international student body at McDonough. The Lappa symbolizes unity, protection, celebration, and peace, according to Cooper, and is usually worn by women in most west African countries.

“I enjoyed seeing my peers showcase the things they love most about their cultures. It was truly a magical night,” Cooper said.

Capping off the International Fest for 2021 was a Bollywood dance performance by 11 students choreographed by Krishna Nair, a second-year MBA student with years of dance and choreograph experience under his belt.

Students whooped and cheered as the dancers burst onto the stage, with matching outfits featuring clean white shirts and red ribbons in their hands.

“I’m not going to lie, the first day of practice, it felt like we had a mountain to conquer…I may have asked by team to practice with me one too many times,” said Nair. “As a budding product manager, I considered the group dance as my product and worked to perfect it before its deployment at International Fest. I am grateful to each one of the dancers to have tolerated my demands for their commitment.”

General view of the international feast


After the event, both Colmenares and Shalabh Jhalawad, the student government’s VP of Student Organization, said the International Fest was an immense success, adding it was opened to other graduate school students for the first time.

“We had participation from international and domestic students across cooking and cultural activities and the audience had attendance from more than 20 other graduate schools at Georgetown,” he said. “For coming years, I hope we can have an even bigger event where all graduate and undergraduate schools can participate, and students can learn more about the diverse cultures and have a true immersive global experience.”

Colmenares added one of the biggest successes was that more than 60 MBA student volunteers were able to meet each other at a deeper level by working on the International Fest and most importantly, having fun.

“At the MBA, we spend insane amounts of time working towards career and academic goals, but we don’t get that many opportunities to work hard towards things that are just for fun. The International Fest created that opportunity for us,” she said.

Students playing Ludo during International Fest activities

Christine Kim (McDonough ’22) is a former Reuters correspondent and communications specialist from Seoul, South Korea. As a journalist, Christine covered issues like North Korea, global financial markets, and central bank rates. She also handled global communications for Samsung Electronics prior to business school and plans to focus on strategy and crisis management post-graduation. In this monthly column, Christine will highlight lesser heard voices and diverse experiences at Georgetown’s MBA program. 





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