The Hammond High School cafeteria is packed with students. In one corner, a mix of Irish, Israeli and Ethiopian music can be heard while students cheer those competing in a chopstick pick-up competition.
This was not a scene from a lunch period; this was Culture Fest, a showcase of the diverse international population at the Columbia school.
More than 30 students last week presented informational poster boards, traditional clothing, food, toys, games and currency from 29 countries native to them or their parents.
"What we're trying to do is demonstrate our diversity and have kids take pride in their heritage," said Marguerite Hart, a Spanish teacher at Hammond who brainstormed with English teacher Mary Waldell to come up with the idea.
Students from Iceland, Venezuela, Ukraine and many places in between proudly recited facts about their native countries, as groups of students moved through the cafeteria.
During a lull, students Ruqayyah Albaari and Tsiom Miherete took pictures of themselves in their traditional Ethiopian dress.
The girls, both 15, met at the start of the school year in Hart's class and decided to participate in the festival together. Miherete lived in Ethiopia until she was 9, and Albaari's parents are from there.
"A lot of people have negative connotations about Ethiopia," Albaari said. "But we're a strong country and we want to display that to other people."
The sentiment was echoed by sisters Sope and Tola Lanlokun of Nigeria.
The sisters partnered with friends Oluwakemi Akinduro, 16, and Yemi Adelaja, 17, also from Nigeria, because they wanted to demonstrate that their country was "more developed" and "cooler" than is "misrepresented on television."
All four students said they were "really proud" of their display, which included Nigerian currency, formal headdresses and a blanket made in Nigeria that the Lanlokun sisters and their siblings used when they were children.
Waldell, Hart and the volunteer students have been working on the festival since October. The two teachers hope to make it an annual event, and believe the positive reaction from students and faculty will make it possible. They already have started fundraising for next year and are looking into applying for grants.
The students said they enjoyed the festival and hope to see it repeated.
"It's probably the only fun project that I've done," Albaari said.