Western Tech students celebrate their diversity Feb. 21 and 22

Food, dance and cultural history wil be on display at Western School of Technology and Environmental Science this week as the county magnet high school hold its sixth annual Cultural Coalescence.

Almost one-fifth of the school will participate in the event on Feb. 21 and 22 as 170 students present displays on 50 different countries in the school's gymnasium.

Kevin Applegate, a social studies teacher at the school on Kenwood Avenue, came up with the idea for Cultural Coalescence six years ago as a way to celebrate the school's diverse student body that comes from the western and southwestern portions of the county.

"I've always felt that, I teach a whole unit on Islam, on Buddhism, and I kind of act like I know what I'm talking about, and then I look to the students that I'm teaching and I see five Muslim students," Applegate said. "And then I see two Buddhists and so forth and so on. Why am I teaching this? I find myself asking them questions. So we ended up creating the idea."

The event has evolved from 40 students representing 21 countries to the massive production that it is this year. Teams of two or three students work together to create a display representing a country and submit questions for an interactive work sheet for visitors to complete.

The culinary program at Western Tech will make food from 12 different countries for visitors to sample.

Applegate selected four seniors to assist in the planning and production this year.

Radhika Patel, one of the four organizing this year's event, can remember her first experience with Cultural Coalescence during her freshman year. She said she was instantly enthralled by the concept.

"It wasn't like anything I'd ever seen before or heard before and it was really cool," said Patel, a Catonsville resident. "As a freshman, you're trying to kind of find your place in high school, so to see something like this where everybody comes together and they're sharing stuff about one another was really cool and welcoming."

Her fellow senior organizers shared a similar appreciation for the sense of togetherness that the event provides.

"It's a really exciting way to learn about it," said Sarah Arafat said of the way the event exposes students to world cultures. "It's not like reading it in a textbook or anything.

"Everybody's getting dressed up in their cultural clothes and people get to bring their cultural food," she said.

Oluwaseyi Ogundana lived in Nigeria for 10 years before moving to the United States.

She said she really enjoys the chance to show what life in Africa is really like. .

"A lot of people have a stereotype of Africa and how they live in huts and all that," she said. "And we show them pictures of the real county, the kind of food we have, our livestock, the culture.

"So it just kind of educates them more and gives them an open mind toward other countries and people they don't see usually," she said.

Lezah Calvin said she has been waiting for the time when she would be one of the event's organizers.

"The amount of diversity we have in our school is ridiculous," said the senior. "So I think that's why so many students like Cultural Coalescence. I think that's why it's grown.

"It's so popular because even when you go (to Cultural Coalescence), you're like, 'I didn't know this person had the same culture as I do'. So when you see that it's like OK I'm not the only one at this school, I'm not the only one (in) other places either."

She said she enjoys being part of Cultural Coalescence, not just for the opportunity to show leadership skills, but for the opportunity to celebrate a school full of cultural variety.

Applegate said that the best part about the event is that the students are the ones keeping it alive.

"It's becoming much larger than I ever imagined it," he said.

"There is only one reason why this event has been such a great success, and that is the Western student body," Applegate said.

"I may set up something, but they make it great. I just give them a platform to educate their peers," he said.

And the students are passionate about their opportunity to keep it going.

Patel, who received a Content of Character Award from Baltimore County in January, said she has been looking forward to a leadership role at Cultural Coalescence since her first visit almost four years ago.

"Just since freshman year, seeing the seniors who are in charge and thinking, 'One day that's going to be me, one day that's going to be me,'" Patel said. "And then going through the process, being part of it, just kind of completes the entire experience. Yes, I was part of it three years or two years and now I'm in charge of it."

The event will take place Feb. 21 and 22 from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the school gymnasium.

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