Indiana State University Newsroom

International students discuss cross-cultural meaning of ‘leader’

September 23, 2015

Straight from her homeland in Ghana West Africa, Sonia Nkpe kept to herself for much of her freshman year at Indiana State University.

"I felt different than most of the people I met. I know that I am someone who is not afraid to say what's on my mind, and I realize that can push people away so I just kept to myself my first year on campus," she said.

Now a junior, the athletic training major said she began emerging from her shell when another international student encouraged her to apply for the spot in the Center for Global Engagement's annual international student leader retreat, which is hosted with support from the Indiana State's Division of Student Affairs.

Participants are selected by a committee to participate in the yearly training, which includes speakers and activities to teach international students about the global perspectives of leadership and an overnight trip to field campus in Brazil, Ind.

"I'm really a shy person but the program allowed me time to get out of myself and meet a lot of new friends, especially students who aren't African just like me," Nkpe said. "Right after the program last year, I have become happier with getting involved in activities around campus, and I've opened myself up to being involved in more intellectual conversations with others, which I had been so afraid to do before I joined the program."

A program alumnae and organizer of this year's event, Polina Kaniuka, an Ukrainian graduate student, said the retreat allows international students "to leave their comfort zone, build a network of new friendships and/or do what they might have had doubts about, since different cultures have a different image of what it takes and what it means to be a leader."

"Here, in the USA, they can finally become people they always wanted to be, but maybe didn't have resources or enough of support for before," she said. "From a perspective of a last year's program participant and one of the organizers this year, I would say that this program helped me identify myself and my strengths and weaknesses; in addition, it gave me a huge push to work harder on all the initiatives, since I understand that having an idea is only 10 percent of success; other 90 percent will totally depend on the efforts of those who will actually realize it."

This year's training exposed nearly 30 students - including four domestic students - to different perspectives on leadership and what makes a leader from speakers like Willie Banks, Indiana State's new vice president for student affairs, and Monique Parks-Allen, assistant director of campus life.

"Our major challenge many times is that we see leadership as a position, but we need to move into looking (at leadership) as a role rather than a position," said Zachariah Mathew, associate director at the Center for Global Engagement. "A leader is not someone who knows everything and can do everything, but the person who can identify strengths and bring those strengths together.

"When you do that and have confidence in the strength of your fellow team members you don't have to be afraid of not knowing. Leaders need to bring the strengths together and get to where you want to be," Mathew said.

Nowadays, it's a big deal going to college and earning a degree but an even bigger deal when you get the full package a degree entails, said Mopelola Akinlaja of Nigeria who participated in last year's program and worked with Kaniuka to put together this year's retreat.

"Some experiences that cannot be taught in the classroom but are needed in the workforce and in interactions all throughout life were taught in this retreat. Also, very good bonds and friendships were created and one cannot place a dollar value on that experience," she said. "I am grateful to ISU and the Center for Global Engagement for such an amazing opportunity because I am convinced that I am equipped to face the real world without difficulty."

The role of culture in daily life was learned through a simulation, where students were placed into "clans" that had to develop their own histories. Each group was then given several cultural rules to follow within their clan.

But when taken out of her group and placed in a new one, the dynamics changed, said Alyaa Malibari, a student from Saudi Arabia.

"At the start, I was in my comfort zone and I felt like I was a part of the group," she said. "When I went to the new group, I felt connected only to the other person from my original group who had changed groups with me. For the first few minutes after I got to the new group, I just stood there doing nothing as the group continued working on their project. I was homesick."

It's not unlike what international students in a foreign country experience almost daily, said Mathew, who first came to the U.S. from India as a student.

"Fear of the unknown drives us out, but you need to tell people about your culture and give them a chance to experience it," he said. "Keep in mind, it takes time. It's (your) responsibility to take the first step to build a bridge between the cultures. Teaching is a means of building relationships. It's our responsibility to let people know who we are."

The training aims to help international students begin to view leadership with diverse perspectives and open their minds to a new meaning of leadership, especially in a culture that may be different than their own.

"Because leadership is often defined by where people come from and from their personal experiences, it makes leadership a complex idea to try and understand," said Adonis Ndusha, a criminal justice major who came to Indiana State last spring from Congo. "In my country, you need to be connected to someone with power in order to become a leader. Becoming a leader is more open to everyone in the U.S, but I'm learning that it really isn't as simple as just having power. A leader needs more than that."

Writer: Betsy Simon, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-7972 or


Story Highlights

Nearly 30 students participated in the yearly training, which includes speakers and activities to teach international students about the global perspectives of leadership and an overnight trip to field campus in Brazil, Ind.

See Also:

ISU Partners with Collegiate Sports Associates for Athletics Program Review

ISU Board of Trustees approves priorities for formulation of 2021-25 strategic plan

ISU announces major gift to create Rich and Robin Porter Cancer Research Center

ISU lands in top third nationally in Washington Monthly rankings

Graduation, retention rates show success of ISU’s enrollment strategy