Exchange Students Breakdown Cultural Barriers through Storytelling

Feature Story

Exchange Students Breakdown Cultural Barriers through Storytelling 

Grant brings four Colombian journalism students to Stockton.

By Mandee McCullough '04 &

Susan Allen ’09, ’14

Group of students in circle
Laura Lopez Pineda, center, works with Stockton students during Clinical Research II taught by Victoria Schindler, associate professor of Occupational Therapy, in February.Photos by Susan Allen '09, '14


Immigration. Assimilation. Culture. Human rights. These words are especially relevant. But what do they mean to the people they impact directly, and how do we listen better to their stories? Four exchange students from Colombia are spending time breaking down barriers at Stockton University doing just that. Telling the story - their stories and the stories of others. 

In September 2019, Partners of the Americas announced that Stockton, in partnership with Universidad Del Rosario, was one of the 13 winning teams in the latest Innovation Fund grant competition sponsored by Colombia’s Department of Science, Technology, and Innovation (COLCIENCIAS) and the U.S. Department of State. This grant brought Colombian Journalism students Laura Lopez Pineda, Nicolas Morales Penuela, Melissa Ruiz Mahecha and Ivan Villalba Guavita to Stockton, where they are working with Mariana Smith, assistant professor of Visual Arts at Stockton, Dr. Fátima Martínez (Journalism, Human Sciences School, Universidad del Rosario) and other Stockton faculty in many ways.

Students collaborating in art studio
Ivan Villalba Guavita, center, talks with Stockton students during Clinical Research II taught by Victoria Schindler, associate professor of Occupational Therapy. Photo by Susan Allen '09, '14

The students’ projects combine service-learning, community-based research and creative-research strategies to identify local, national and transnational implications of human migration as a global megatrend, and to expand their understanding of and empathy for various populations. 

“This is a brand-new format for us, where these students get to touch on many different areas of Stockton, from Community Engagement, to Photography, to Television Production to our minor in Migration Studies, where these students are taking classes,” Smith commented. “They are using all of these resources for their projects. They are going to be very busy.”

On Feb. 27, the students had just learned all that goes into curating a photography exhibit with Ryann Casey '01, adjunct instructor of Visual Arts at Stockton. Janelee Marcial-Lugo '19, a photography alum, also spoke with students during the workshop. One of the students’ projects is creating a photography exhibit that focuses on the stories and portraits of people who have immigrated to the United States, which will move to an alternative virtual experience as a result of social distancing. 

Students in the Stockton television studio
The exchange students got to work with students in Joe'l Ludovich's class, learning about broadcast and how to use a green screen in Stockton’s TV studio. Photo by Susan Allen '09, '14

Through this experience they're learning how to develop interdisciplinary projects."

Mariana Smith
Assistant professor of Visual Arts

“You are witnesses to silent stories. You are the way their stories will be told,” Casey told the students as she helped them prepare for their visual storytelling project.  She challenged the students to think deeply about how they would approach their subjects and frame their individual stories.

“They’re not artists. I did not want them to be artists. Through this experience, they’re learning how to develop interdisciplinary projects,” Smith said.

The exchange students are getting the full Stockton experience, too - living on campus in Galloway, creating relationships and building a better understanding of life in the United States. They also can share their culture with Stockton students. 

“We’ve made great friends here,” Ruiz, 20, said smiling as she reflected on her experiences with her roommates in Housing 4.

Villalba, 23, said it has been a much more independent living situation than the one he is accustomed to in Colombia. There, he lived with his parents, so this has been a really good learning opportunity for him. 

The students are keeping a blog, “Borders,” of their time in the United States and the experiences they’re having, including visiting New York City and checking out museums in Philadelphia. 

“We saw a real Van Gogh,” Lopez, 21, beamed when talking about their adventure into the arts in Philadelphia. “I only thought something like that would be in Paris! Not Philly,” she laughed. Ruiz, who lived in Seattle before, commented she got to eat Greek food, which she loves.

Mariana Smith at table
Mariana Smith, center, smiles while discussing a project with Ryann Casey '01, adjunct instructor of Visual Arts at Stockton. Photo by Susan Allen '09, '14

Their career aspirations are ambitious, which isn’t surprising when you sit down with them and experience their enthusiasm and energy. Lopez hopes to pursue a career in the research aspect of journalism, Villalba aspires to create a website, Ruiz talks about being a traveling blogger and Morales says he hopes to pursue a career in mass media focusing on human rights and political issues. The work they are getting to do at Stockton touch on all of these topics.

The students are especially excited about producing a two-episode talk show that will focus on immigration-related issues. This will be a collaboration with current Stockton students interested in broadcast that are in the class of Joe’l Ludovich, associate professor of Communication. 

Ruiz said that these episodes will explore how different people deal with their own immigration stories, whether they embrace fully assimilating and adapting to this culture, and also how they infuse their own culture into their lives. 

The students participated in community outreach including attending meetings at the Hispanic Alliance of Atlantic County, Stockton UNIDOS, which supports this program, and other organizations.

Nabila Sudha, a senior at Stockton majoring in Political Science, and Smith were scheduled to begin their exchange experience at Universidad del Rosario this May, where they would work on similar projects and collaborations. While their travel may be postponed due to the current pandemic, they still hope to use digital tools and technology to connect and complete their work.


Learn more about Stockton's School of Arts & Humanities