40 years of UNCC festival celebrates region’s growing cultural landscape

The International Festival features an open-air market for crafts and art from 50 countries. Here a patron checks out items from Peru.
The International Festival features an open-air market for crafts and art from 50 countries. Here a patron checks out items from Peru.

Forty years ago at UNC Charlotte’s first International Festival, about a dozen countries were represented and a thousand people showed up that day in 1975.

A local French organization held a French wine-tasting party in a booth. Germans set up a beer garden in their booth.

And the local Italian-Americans – they brought a Ferrari.

“They parked it on the sidewalk. That was their contribution,” said Marian Beane, one of the festival’s founders who retired last year as director of UNCC’s International Student Scholar Office. “But, you know, it’s the Italian group that has participated in the festival each year since then.”

Saturday, the university will celebrate in grand style the 40th anniversary of the free one-day festival that has grown to 50 countries – with their food, music, dancing and cultural crafts and art – and that in recent years has drawn crowds of more than 20,000.

It began when UNCC was much smaller with about 7,500 students (most of them commuters) and its Center for International Studies (opened the same year) was a fledgling effort to expose students to the world beyond. At the time, UNCC enrolled about 100 students from foreign countries. Now there are 1,900.

Beane arrived at the school in 1971, first as director of the school’s two female residence halls then. She moved to the international studies center when it opened four years later and was assigned to a small committee that included a faculty member and staffer to develop programs that would draw attention to the center and university.

They came up with the festival – to join Charlotte’s Festival in the Park and Greek Festival.

Fourteen years earlier, the university had relocated as Charlotte College from uptown to its current 1,000-acre campus. Yet in 1975, UNCC was still considered a commuter outpost with 24 buildings.

Many Charlotteans still thought the 10-mile drive from uptown on mostly two-lane roads may as well have been in another state. The festival was intended to help the region to campus. Some in the region got their first glimpse of the campus going to the festival.

As UNCC and Charlotte has become more cosmopolitan, the festival has grown each year.

“The festival perfectly represents the institution’s commitment to the ongoing internationalization of the university community – and the city of Charlotte as well,” said Joël Gallegos, UNCC’s assistant provost of International Studies. “For decades, it has served as a bridge between the university and Charlotte.”

Over the years, organizers have paced booths according to world events in and around the Barnhardt Student Activity Center. Since Bosnian and Serbians have had poor relations after documented evidence of ethnic cleansing by Serbs, those two booths are kept apart, Beane said. Israeli booths aren’t close to booths of Arab nations hostile to Israel.

Hundreds of students, domestic and international, help design and put on the festival. Ethnic groups bring volunteers to sell natives foods, display cultural art and crafts, play music and dance.

At each festival, there is a parade of nations. On this Saturday at 6:45 p.m., a Chinese dragon will lead the crowd to Irwin Belk Track and Field Complex for a anniversary program and fireworks.

“This festival has always been about getting to know other parts of the world,” Beane said. “People from all over the world bring the richness of their personal culture and home culture so we can all connect with a variety of those cultures in one place.”

Perlmutt: 704-358-5061

Want to go?

The 40th annual International Festival at UNC Charlotte starts at 10 a.m. on Saturday at the Barnhardt Student Activity Center and will go to 7:35 p.m. with fireworks at the Irwin Belk Track and Field Complex. The event will be globally streamed live with performances and interviews on the internet at livestream.uncc.edu on Saturday beginning at noon and then on demand throughout the weekend. Last year’s livestream reached 2,600 viewing sites in 40 countries.