International Culture Fair

Young students at the International Culture Fair

A Day in the Life 

At the International Culture Fair, children get to experience life around the world. 

As a child, Dr. Heidi Backes, assistant professor in the department of modern and classical languages, looked forward to one event each year.   

“The Holiday Folk Fair takes place every November in Milwaukee, where I grew up,” she says. “It’s how I first learned about different cultures and a big part of the reason I was motivated to travel the world.”  

Now, she organizes a similar experience for children in Springfield. Each fall, approximately 500 children arrive on the Missouri State campus. With “passports” in hand, they travel from booth to booth — just as globetrotting adults might go from country to country.  

Each booth represents an international experience, where kids get the chance to learn about a new culture by completing an activity.  

Children engaged in activities at the International Culture Fair

For example, in the German booth, they may craft cuckoo clocks from construction paper and stickers. Then with a few steps, they’re in “Kenya,” where they get to create traditional Maasai bracelets. And at the Chinese booth, they might learn proper chopstick techniques.  

All booths are staffed by volunteers. Many of these volunteers are international students studying at Missouri State, who enjoy this opportunity to share pieces of home with an eager, young audience. And the kids love learning about other cultures from such authentic sources.  

“We’re drawing people closer together,” Backes says, “which makes the world seem smaller.” 

Students at the International Culture Fair

Language and culture

For children at the International Culture Fair, participating in a new activity may be the gateway to learning a new language.  

After all, says Backes, language is deeply connected to culture.  

“The traditional definition of culture is ‘the way of life of a group of people.’ And at its most fundamental nature, that’s what life is all about,” she says. “How do we do the things we do? And then how do we use language to describe them?”  

So as kids craft traditional Carnival masks at the Fair’s Italian booth, it’s natural for them to imagine the words and phrases that could be used to describe the masks.

Children make Italian Carnival masks at the International Culture Fair

Backes says, “Language is just a way of expressing culture. You can’t disassociate the words we use for a concept from the way we experience that concept.”  

In this way, Backes sees the Fair as an extension of Missouri State’s public affairs mission, which stresses cultural competence. It also connects to the goal of educating a globally prepared workforce.  

“We’re always hearing this key phrase, ‘globalism,’” Backes says. “The Fair gives children a glimpse of what being ‘global’ is all about.”