Local students “traveled” from Sri Lanka to Iceland to other global spots Monday to celebrate the diversity of cultures around the world.

The students, who were each given a country to represent, were taking part in the annual International Festival at Kokomo High School.

Each year, Kokomo High School freshman and International Baccalaureate Academy students come together for the festival, which offers lessons on other countries, foods and more.

International Baccalaureate Academy teacher Leslie Lewis had this year’s students focus on the 17 sustainable development goals of the United Nations. The groups spend time researching and then present how their country is working to meet the goal, what the struggles are and what accomplishments they’ve made.

Lewis said the project does more than just educate the students about a location with basic facts.

“I think one of the things it does is that it helps students understand that the world is bigger than Kokomo. … They really have to expand their horizons just understanding where their country is located, the challenges they face and the similarities or differences from their own cultures,” she said.

KHS freshmen Amanda Silver and Elizabeth Lytle chose to focus on Iceland for their project. The duo researched for four days and wrote a five-page essay on their findings before they created their presentation board on gender equality.

“We wanted to talk about gender equality and Iceland has the best gender equality in the world,” Silver said. “In the past 36 years, 20 of those years have had an Icelandic woman as the head of state, like a president or prime minister.”

Project partners Sophia Justice and Rebecca Arvay took on goal 14 of the UN, which is entitled “Life Below Water.” The students selected Sri Lanka due to the country’s polluted water.

“We did ocean pollution because the country is the fifth country out of 20 with high ocean pollution,” Justice said. “They’re suffering from ocean pollution which causes animal death, coral bleaching … climate change and unemployment.”

Sixth-grader Julia Fair learned Sri Lanka is not the only nation where water is a concern.

“I learned that their ocean is very polluted,” she said. “We need water to drink and if it’s polluted then we can’t drink the water.”

Lewis hopes students will come away from the festival not only with cultural education, but an understanding of the need for cultural compassion

“In order for us to have empathy, which is a necessary quality for our students, they have to understand that despite differences in cultures there are similarities all over the world, and that we all have similar struggles even through our differences,” Lewis said. “We’re put on this earth to help each other, not hurt each other.”

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