Sustainability leaders from around the world spoke at University of Richmond during International Education Week

Scholars without borders

November 29, 2023

Research & Innovation

At a campus International Education Week event, a man with red-painted facial markings, a beaded necklace, and feathered headdress stood next to a poster that read: “Meet the Amazonians.” He caught the attention of visitors passing by.

“Habla Español?” he asked one, with a smile.

Since 2007, University of Richmond faculty and students have traveled to the Amazon to collaborate with Indigenous leaders to study changes to the rainforest. This year, UR students had a chance to meet with some of those Brazilian, Peruvian, and Bolivian representatives, who presented at UR’s International Education Week, held in mid-November. 

Since 2017, the University creates a host of programs for the special week, part of a national effort through the Department of State that highlights the importance of global engagement, dialogue, and cultural exchange. This year’s event, "Braided Knowledge for a Sustainable Future: Rivers, Indigenous Communities, Justice," focused on local and global sustainability. The gathering included over 20 official events — from plenary talks and discussion roundtables to gallery talks, films, trips down the James River, and an international dinner.

“UR is unique in having campus-wide engagement. Most universities might have an event, not sustained community,” said Martha Merritt, dean and the Carole M. Weinstein Chair of International Education. “We like taking intellectual risks.”

She said the University initiated the campus-wide week to extend international engagement at home, deepen relationships with overseas partners, and create community by learning about other places and global challenges there. The event has had a focus on sustainable living from the beginning.

“I have always been really impressed with the engagement of our partner organizations in Richmond and from around the world, but 2023 was a record,” Merritt said. “We had visitors from nine countries, and most of them came because of previous IE Weeks. All of them commented on the energy and serious thinking about sustainability they met at UR from students, faculty, and staff.”

Each day brought at least 60 students to one of the events, who also worked as translators for visitors and scribes to record the proceedings.

One of the week's student helpers was Johavy Mendoza Meza, (front right), Class of 2025, who interpreted Spanish to English.

“I thought it was beautiful to see our students fluently speaking Spanish and translating extensively,” Merritt said, “and through shared language, coming to an understanding with people who come from very different cultures.”

Speakers included Indigenous leaders from the three largest Amazonian countries, UR faculty, and scholars such as Jacinta Ruru, a Maori law professor at University of Otago, New Zealand; Daniel Wildcat, a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas; and David Orr, an emeritus professor of environmental studies and politics at Oberlin College, and professor of practice at Arizona State. 

A visiting scholar from Waseda University in Japan accompanied Todd Lookingbill's class to plant trees at a middle school and to visit a primary/middle school to discuss outdoor education.

“There were lots of side conversations about how to have careers that make a difference, and internship possibilities were discussed with our students,” Merritt said. “The week offered opportunities to integrate local and global sustainability, with a focus on a better future.”