On Sept. 28, Scottish bagpipes will sound throughout the UNC Charlotte campus, waking students who may still be sleeping off Friday night’s fun.
The aroma of sizzling sausages, deep-fried falafel and other foods from faraway places will waft through the dorms, stamping out the stale smell of leftover pizza. And the sights outside their windows – small children piling into a giant Earth-shaped balloon on the campus lawn, for one – will signal that this isn’t any normal weekend.
All cue the start of UNCC’s International Festival, an event that transforms the campus and brings the sights, sounds and smells of more than 50 countries throughout the world.
Now in its 38th year, the festival was initially launched to bring attention to the university’s then-new Office of International Programs.
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With only 10 to 15 booths, the festival’s first run reflected the small number of students in the program and the public’s unfamiliarity with the UNCC campus. Back then, dropped in amid rural surroundings, the university seemed like its own faraway land.
“I don’t know how many people came, but it was a lovely day and people said, ‘Let’s do this again.’ So it’s become a tradition,” said Marian Beane, senior coordinator for international engagement within the Office of International Programs.
Today, the office works with around 1,300 students, and the festival has followed suit in raising its numbers.
Last year an estimated 20,000 people passed by the giant Earth, traditionally fixed at the festival’s entrance. Beane has always attributed the high numbers to the university’s Family Weekend, which in previous years shared the same date.
This year’s Family Weekend, however, was scheduled earlier, Sept. 13-15, to coincide with a Charlotte 49ers football game.
It’s never been about the numbers, though, said Beane.
“We are neighbors and we live together, so getting to know each other in a celebration and honoring the various ethnic and cultural groups that we have here is a way of developing a greater sense of a relationship.”
Staples of the event include storytelling, cultural dances, a marketplace, a food court, an international game station and a Parade of Nations, where participants represent 50 countries by dressing in traditional costume for a walk through campus.
Over its history, some aspects of the festival have come and gone. The beer and wine gardens once set up to celebrate German and French cultures were eventually phased out.
“We couldn’t do that anymore, because too many students were having too good a time,” said Beane.
Other draws introduced years ago, such as the inflatable Earth balloon – where children can climb inside to get a peek at the world from the inside out – have remained.
“It’s not an overly polished event, but it’s one that has some great celebration of cultures and a real community experience,” said Beane. “It’s an opportunity to share culture. It’s a folk festival.”