Stepping Up for Diversity
Meghan Ryan has been dancing Irish jigs since she was knee-high to a grasshopper.
In fact, one of the University of Iowa student's earliest memories is of breaking into a spontaneous jig as a 5-year-old in a pub when an Irish band started playing music.
"I fell in love with Irish dancing, and my Dad says that when I first learned to jig, this was one of his proudest moments of me," says Ryan, 21, a Davenport, Iowa, native and political science major with a minor in Arabic who is also obtaining an international business certificate.
Ryan began Irish step dancing at her parent’s encouragement, performing and competing across the Midwest.
She’s proud of her heritage, instilled in her by her family at a very young age, especially her father, who is Irish.
“Irish dancing culture helps my family stay close,” Ryan says. “There’s a special bond. Irish dancing has definitely made me more proud of my heritage, and I love talking about it and sharing it through dance.”
Ryan enjoys sharing her culture so much so that she will perform with the Champagne Academy of Irish Dance at the Celebrating Cultural Diversity Festival this Sunday, Sept. 29, from 3:35 to 3:50 p.m. in Hubbard Park in Iowa City.
Their performance will consist of originally choreographed Irish songs, including one titled, "Cry of the Celts," as well as traditional favorites such as music from Lord of the Dance.
During the performance, Ryan will don a wig with cascading giant blondish-white curls covering her blonde hair. Dressed in a handmade dark purple traditional velvet Irish school dress, she will run, jump, kick, leap, and twirl to musical jigs, reels, and hornpipes while keeping her arms stiffly at her side.
“It’s more of a strict kind of dance. It’s kind of like ballet where your feet are always pointed and crossed,” Ryan says. “It’s really fun. Sometimes when you’re running and leaping on the stage you literally feel like you’re flying, and I love that feeling.”
Ryan is not only performing, but she’s the performance chair who has helped to organize all the groups performing at the festival, the kickoff event for UI Homecoming for the first time this year. She’s also served on the Homecoming committee and coordinated the selling of buttons.
But Ryan isn’t interested in only Irish culture.
In high school, the international seed was planted as she became interested in learning about other cultures and countries.
"I was really good at Spanish and so I wanted to continue studying languages through college no matter what my major was," Ryan says who started at the UI studying biology and French.
However, after one year of French, she decided that she wanted to study a non-Latin based language so she started taking Arabic.
Haggling for tapestries in Arabic, riding camels in Sahara
“Through Arabic, I just got really interested in Middle Eastern culture,” Ryan says, which led to her study abroad experience in Morocco this past summer.
While there, she studied intensive Arabic at the American Language Institute in Fez. She was also able to travel to Paris and use her French language skills.
“I was in classes for four hours every day, and in Morocco, they take their lunch very, very seriously,” Ryan says. “So we had two hours of classes, then we had a four-hour lunch break so you’d have time to fill yourself up and take a nap, and then I’d have class again.”
Lunches would consist of some type of spiced meat such as beef or lamb, fresh figs, olives, or oranges, bread, vegetables, and Moroccan mint tea.
“It was really hard to stop eating because they’d constantly serve you,” Ryan says fondly. “I learned how to say, ‘I’m full’ in Arabic early on, but it really didn’t matter.”
One challenge, she says, is that the formal Arabic she was learning was very different than the Moroccan Arabic spoken with friends and family, a blend of Arabic, Berber, French, Spanish, and other languages.
“Formal Arabic is only in the Koran and no one actually speaks it there,” Ryan says. “I learned how to haggle in Arabic, and I brought back clothing, a big tapestry, a silver tea pot. I loved haggling.”
She hopes to pursue a marketing-related or events-planning career in an international setting, possibly in the Middle East in the Gulf countries with a governmental agency or non-governmental organization.
Though she’s not fluent yet, Ryan says she has a high-level of Arabic proficiency now and can carry on a fairly complex conversation. She’s taking her third year of Arabic and is in an advanced level class at the UI.
“With all of the student organizations I’ve been involved with, I have a handle on this. I can do this,” Ryan says.
The study abroad experience was invaluable, Ryan says, and definitely a highlight of her college career thus far.
“I’m a lot more thankful and accepting of what I have after studying abroad,” Ryan says, who lived with a single mother who owned a Koranic school. “She was so wonderful and hospitable. I’ve learned that it’s possible to live a simpler lifestyle.”
Ryan is also much more cognizant of the rights and freedoms that women have in the U.S.
“I also became really close to my host family who included my mother and she had maids who lived in their house but some of them stayed every night and talking and laughing with them was great,” Ryan says. “It was definitely hard to leave them.”
Bridging the gap between U.S., international students
Studying abroad isn’t the only way students can have international experiences, though Ryan highly encourages it.
The UI has more than 50 multicultural student organizations including OASIS, the Organization for the Active Support of International Students, a group that Ryan has been very involved with the past few years as both vice president and secretary.
The group’s mission, Ryan explains, is to bridge the gap and bring together both international and U.S. students for fun, learning, and support.
"It's a great group and definitely helps everyone get to know each other and realize there are more similarities than differences,” Ryan says.
Ryan says as a freshman, she was less engaged and wouldn’t approach an international student she didn’t know.
Now, through her Arabic classes and OASIS, Ryan says she’s made friendships with students from China, Korea, Sudan, Egypt, and New Zealand. She’s also had Arabic instructors from Tunisia and Oman.
OASIS also plans social events and activities. OASIS members will be out in full force at the Celebrating Cultural Diversity Festival, selling bubble tea as a fund-raiser, raising awareness, and recruiting new members.
“We plan the Cultural Ball, the Bridging Fiesta, and we do a few volunteer events, and a few welcome events for international students,” Ryan says. “We feel like our own little family, and whenever we address emails, it’s ‘Hey OASIS family.’ Really amazing friendships have developed out of OASIS.”
OASIS hosts meetings every Thursday, but other events are also organized every semester such as barbecues. In addition to her work with OASIS, Ryan also interned with the Girl Scouts several summers ago and eventually became their waterfront director. She's also worked as an audiovisual assistant in the Carver College of Medicine for the past three years.
She urges all UI students, but especially freshmen, to come to the festival or get involved with students groups such as OASIS.
She notes it’s important to remember that diversity isn’t just about ethnicity, country of origin, or race.
“For example, we have a special needs group coming to the festival and that’s a culture in itself,” Ryan says. “It’s learning about different people and different ways of living as well.”
Ryan is especially excited because even though it’s her last year on campus, it’s her first Celebrating Cultural Diversity Festival.
“Everyone that’s been planning it has been putting their full hearts into it,” Ryan says. “This festival involves UI students and the community. It’s a good way to mix both together.”
Once the festival is over, Ryan hopes to study abroad again, possibly in London to study marketing over winter break or in China to learn about business culture over spring break.
And though she’s never been to Ireland, it’s another trip she’s planning in her future. Maybe she’ll even dance a jig in an Irish pub.
Contact: Lois Gray, University Communication and Marketing, 319-384-0077