Russell students learn how to work across cultures



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RUSSELL Working with colleagues and clients from other cultures is the new norm in the business world, and some students at Russell High School got expert advice on doing so from a panel of mostly local executives Thursday.

Panel members talked about business dealings with clients in Japan, Mexico and other locations around the globe, and discussed both the rewards that come with bridging diverse cultures and the pitfalls of cultural misunderstanding.

The students are in a virtual exchange program with high-school counterparts in Morocco called Global Nomads Campfire. Over the past few months they have learned much about life and culture there, which is both familiar in the shared preoccupations of teenagers everywhere and vastly different in terms of religion, customs and government.

The panelists included Josh Blanton, plant manager at Vesuvius USA at the Wurtland Riverport, Timothy Albert, manager of the Altivia Petrochemicals plant in Haverhill, Ohio, Sue Retzlaff, director of talent management at King’s Daughters Medical Center, and Gene Osborne, a Russell police officer.

Russell Area Technology Center Principal David Trimble also sat in on the panel, which explored the complexities of what in the worlds of commerce, business and academia is called cultural competence.

Put simply, the term refers to the knowledge and ability to interact effectively with those of different cultures.

The significance of cultural competency becomes obvious on traveling abroad, said Blanton, who said his “American mindset” changed after a business trip to Mexico where he met with business associates from that country.

The fate of a business deal can hinge on something as seemingly simple as the exchange of business cards, Albert said. What is seen as a relatively casual interchange in western culture is a ritual in which a hint of disrespect can lead to offense. “Something as simple as that can break down a business deal,” he said.

The health of a patient can hinge on understanding cultural mores, said Retzlaff, who recalled Asian women who suffered thirst rather than drink cold beverages after childbirth — because in their culture hot beverages are the norm.

Effective policing depends on communicating effectively with the public, including those who aren’t fluent in English, Osborne said.

The students, who are enrolled in Spanish teacher Catherine Del Valle’s upper level and AP classes, will need that kind of know-how once they move into the work world, Del Valle said.

Students planned and executed the panel discussion as a project to complete their participation in the Campfire program. It was recorded and will be available for use by other classes at Russell.

The students hope their work will help dispel stereotypes, said student moderators Tulsi Thakor and Bethany Bloss, both juniors.

They say stereotypes are common among high school students.

Thakor, whose family is from India, said she hopes for more understanding of her culture. “People don’t try to be mean, but they just don’t understand where we come from,” she said.

“We want to get more people to recognize global competency,” Bloss said.

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