Making a connection with the community.

when Cesar Sobrino Acuna arrived in Pittsburg from Paraguay in Fall 2012 to begin his degree in music performance, he was nervous.

Most international students are.

They travel thousands of miles. They face a language and cultural barrier. Add to that their preconceived notions about the U.S.

“In a country like Paraguay, we have the tendency to consume international products, especially for entertainment — movies, music, TV shows — so based on that, I had an idea of what America was like,” he said. “But we also have the mistaken belief that every single place in the U.S. is like New York, Miami, LA, or Chicago.”

He wasn’t expecting to find a quiet but friendly town of 20,000 that welcomed him with open arms and smiles.

“I can honestly say that my experience in Pittsburg taught me more than just what I needed for my degree,” he said. “It showed me that things are not always what they seem, and that you have to live it for yourself before you can talk about it. I learned a lot about myself and other cultures, and it showed me the other side of the U.S. — the real one, which I loved.”

Conversely, Pittsburg residents have found that the addition of international students to the community each year enriches it in many ways. For Pittsburg teacher Susan Trowbridge, they brought to life her lessons.

“We wanted to expand our lessons in social studies from beyond just a textbook, so we invited PSU students from China and Brazil to come to our classes and share their culture,” Trowbridge said. “Our students learned so much from them — things they really couldn’t learn from just reading or watching a video. Having them here makes Pittsburg more global.”


It’s no surprise that Pittsburg welcomes international visitors. Like many Southeast Kansas towns, it was built by immigrants who flocked here by the thousands in the late 1800s and the early 1900s to fill jobs in the burgeoning coal mines, zinc smelters, and other industries.

The area became a melting pot of many cultures, ethnicities, and languages, earning it a nickname still in use: The Little Balkans. Groups throughout the community make it their mission to ensure students not only feel welcome, but have the opportunity to learn more about American culture and in turn, share theirs.

Today, groups throughout the community make it their mission to ensure students like Cesar not only feel welcome, but have the opportunity to learn more about American culture and in turn, share theirs.

students performing

Coordinated by Cynthia Pfannensteil with assistance from the International Programs and Services Office at PSU, a long-standing group called International Friends of Pittsburg is comprised of volunteers who agree to share their lives with international students.

The group also hosts formal activities, from large welcome dinners at a local church at the start of each semester, to “Friendship Families,” in which they match students to community members based on common interests, such as sports or the arts.

Pitt Pals help international students learn about American culture.

Pitt Pals help international students learn about American culture.

“We have no membership dues or any requirements other than interest and goodwill toward our new students,” said Pfannensteil, who got involved in the 1980s.

For the past 10 years, she has been a board member.

“Many of the students have not been away from home before,”

she said. “Having a friend can ground them and make them feel included. Most of them come from very family- oriented cultures and they like having a special someone

to call their family in Pittsburg.”

Among them: Deborah

Hurt Walker, whose parents were hosts to international students in the

1990s, and stayed in contact after

their students returned home. So, Walker began hosting herself,

starting in 2006 with a student from South Korea.

“Her name was Kate and we just fell in love with each other,” Walker recalled. “She was here for one year and I would pick her up every Wednesday. She would cook and sew with me — even learned to quilt.”

Walker, active in a long-running regional quilt show, witnessed Kate finish her first quilt in time to enter it; she took first place in the “first quilt” category.

“When she went home, we both had broken hearts, cried buckets of tears,” Walker said.

Next, she hosted students from Sri Lanka.

“We still stay in contact — I even visit them at their new homes in St. Louis and Cleveland after they graduated,” Walker said. “These two girls and I did everything together: family dinners, grocery shopping, clothing shopping.”

She even taught them both to ride bicycles.

Subsequent years found her hosting students from Iran and more students from South Korea.

“I took them driving down the dirt roads to teach them to drive,” Walker recalled.

Those who befriend international students, said Walker, get something in return: the chance to dabble in another language, taste authentic meals made by natives of other countries, and discover shared values.

“I’ve learned a great deal about the home countries of each of the 10 students I’ve hosted, and had the chance to interact with their families through Skype,” she said. “They have enriched my life.”

For Cesar, it was community involvement that caused him to now consider Pittsburg his second home — so much so, he returned to visit from South America less than a year after graduating.

As a student, he was invited to sing at a local church, which readily adopted him into the congregation. And he began teaching music lessons to local children.

“Their parents treated me so well, I felt that those kids were like mine,” he said.

By the end of his five years at PSU, he was jumping from Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving, Christmas dinner to Christmas dinner, at the invitation of his American friends.

“People in Pittsburg never made me feel lonely, and I’m truly thankful for that,” he said. “To me, they were like family, as if I lived there my whole life. I think there will always be that connection.”

Giving back

Throughout their time at PSU, international students, in turn, give back to the community that welcomes them with open arms.

As they did for the classes at Westside, they often visit area elementary schools to bring to life lessons in social studies and geography.

Several times a year, they stage cultural events on and off campus to which they invite domestic students, faculty, staff, and area residents.

In December, students from Finland hosted a cultural celebration to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Finland’s independence. They served Finnish foods and showed a Finnish movie.

The Chinese Culture Club is very active, and each February hosts a Chinese New Year Gala that includes a traditional Chinese dinner followed by traditional Chinese performances and cultural presentations.

Each Spring, Korean students host a Korean Culture Day that includes traditional and contemporary Korean performances ranging from songs to fan dances, followed by a traditional Korean meal.

The International Food & Culture Fair each March at Memorial Auditorium in downtown Pittsburg draws hundreds of area residents.

And twice a year, the Indian students invite the community to celebrate with them: at the Holi Festival of Colors in the Spring, and Diwali Festival of Lights to kick off the holiday season.

Faculty advisor Mark Johnson said such events allows attendees to get a taste of other countries without the travel.

“Students, faculty, staff, alumni, community – everyone comes together to share culture, food, fun, music, heritage, all in one place. It takes the idea of OAGAAG (Once a Gorilla, Always a Gorilla) to a global level.”

“They can do it practically in their own backyard, so to speak,” Johnson said. “Students, faculty, staff, alumni, community – everyone comes together to share culture, food, fun, music, heritage, all in one place. It takes the idea of OAGAAG (Once a Gorilla, Always a Gorilla) to a global level.”

“You can see it, hear it, taste it. It’s the whole package. And it’s an amazing part of the Pitt State experience.”