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Interterm trip finds cultural diversity without leaving U.S. borders

September 11th, 2017

by Elizabeth Ratzlaff

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – As part of the Bethel College education course School and Community, three other students and I had the opportunity to spend a week in Chicago during the January interterm.

This month-long course focuses on the importance of multicultural education in our schools. While in our home base, the Bethel classroom, we discussed best practices to empower increasingly diverse students to learn and recognize their potential.

After a week in class, the four of us students, our professor, Lisa Scott, and her husband, Michael Scott, boarded the train to Chicago.

For this course, Bethel partners with the Chicago Center for Urban Life and Culture who hosted us, put together our itinerary and prearranged our observation placements in different Chicago public schools. We were joined by students from Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, and shared our week-long experience with them.

The Chicago Center leaders enabled us to experience places in Chicago of which we would have most likely been unaware if we had gone on our own as “regular tourists.” They opened our eyes to the diverse neighborhoods and Chicago’s rich cultural diversity.

At the start of our trip, we were given a walking tour of Pilsen, a predominantly Latino, Mexican-American neighborhood located on the lower west side. It is culturally vibrant with many colorful murals displayed on the side of buildings and delicious and authentic Mexican food – both of which we were able to experience.

Afterwards, we were given a driving tour of South Side Chicago. We saw huge differences between neighborhoods that looked like ghost towns and that of Hyde Park where the University of Chicago is located. Food, education and medical resources are not evenly distributed, and we were all surprised to the extent of segregation between neighborhoods in the city.

Later, a leader at the Chicago Center told us stories from young students he has met who have not left their neighborhood enough to even know that their city is bordered by Lake Michigan.

We each learned to use public transportation as means to explore the city and to travel to our observation placements. We observed in classrooms for three full school days. Bailey and Clint observed in special-education classrooms in Ghoete public school with K-8 students.

“Observing in the Chicago public schools allowed me to grow in a way that I would not have been able to here in rural Kansas. I saw diversity at new levels, and the experience made me confident in my decision to continue forward in the field of education,” said my classmate Bailey.

Austin and I observed in English and Language Arts classrooms at Infinity High School in Little Village neighborhood. Little Village has the highest concentration of Latino immigrants in Chicago, and 96 percent of Infinity High School’s students are first- and second-generation Mexican-American immigrants.

It was a very different cultural experience than my own high school experience in rural Moundridge. I cannot pretend to understand the way a minority in the United States feels when she or he or they walk into a room unable to identify with another of their race, religion or sexual orientation.

I am White, middle-class, straight and Christian, and regardless of who I am surrounded by, I am still part of the dominant society in my country. This said, it was a new and valuable experience for me to walk into a classroom where I was the only person of my race and a “minority.”

It was encouraging to see how the teachers incorporated students’ Mexican culture within everyday lesson plans and allowed the bilingual students to speak Spanish freely when they weren’t doing class work in English. I was grateful to see multiple cultures being celebrated and coexisting within the school.

While many of our friends traveled outside of the United States to experience other cultures during Interterm, we found that there are many cultures to appreciate right here in the United States as well. Our country’s diversity is a gift, and our Chicago trip made that obvious once again.


Elizabeth Ratzlaff is a sophomore from Moundridge. Other members of the 2017 interterm class School and Community, taught by Lisa Janzen Scott, associate professor of education, were Austin Biggerstaff, Clyde, Bailey Strausz, Moundridge, and Clinton Unruh, Newton.

About Bethel

As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.