SUNY Oswego faculty member Francisco Suárez says an intercultural student documentary project will dovetail with a Tuesday, April 17, presentation on campus by noted documentary filmmaker Rita Coburn.

Coburn, co-director of "Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise," will take the Hewitt ballroom stage at 7 p.m. as part of the student-run Voices of Diversity Speaker Series. Suárez, who advises the organization and teaches courses in broadcasting and mass communication, has let the filmmaker know that the evening is also the culmination of a project in intercultural understanding, arts inspiration and, in some cases, new friendships.

In the Diversity in the Arts Documentary Project, seven teams, each comprised of an international student, a student artist and students in broadcasting or cinema and screen studies, will have worked for weeks on art pieces and brief documentary films that will be on display starting at 6 that evening. SUNY Oswego has more than 250 international students from 38 countries.

"I know what it's like to come here without the language, to learn a new culture, and what it's like to leave your culture, your family," said Suárez, a native of Venezuela. "It becomes a personal choice to put yourself out there and really try to learn from the new culture."

Yet, he said, it is sometimes in engineering such encounters that lasting intercultural experiences occur.

"It's human nature for students to gather with those whose backgrounds are similar," Suárez said. "Students sometimes push back against team projects, because it can put them out of their comfort zone. But it's our obligation as professors to be sure to mix that bowl. The real goal of this project is to open your minds to people who are different." 

'Talk about differences'

The project for his "Global Documentary Production" course models that advice. Suárez recently gathered one of the teams in an art studio to talk informally about the Diversity in the Arts Documentary Project: Mariola Montoya, an exchange student from Madrid, Spain, dual majoring (at her institution) in audiovisual communication and journalism; Kaitlin Alexander, a studio art major from Sterling; Zackary Crawford of Homer, a broadcasting and mass communication major; and James Reid of Lake Placid, dual majoring in broadcasting and in cinema and screen studies. 

The premise of the project is for a student artist to meet and converse during four to six sessions with an international student, producing an art piece -- such as a sculpture, painting or photograph -- inspired by making a deep dive into the visiting student's culture. All of the conversations and a big "reveal" of the art piece to the international student are captured in video, then edited to produce a documentary.

Crawford said the scenario "quickly breaks down stereotypes." Montoya agreed, saying, "We all have stereotypes." For example, she said, many people may have only the most vague, homogenized idea of what Spain is like, yet there are stark cultural differences between the north and south in the country. The culture of the latter, less populated, region "is much more rich than just paella and flamenco," she said.

Montoya expressed appreciation for the project and the Americans on the team. "You guys," she said to her teammates, "feel like you're learning from me. In my mind, I'm learning so much from you. We talk about differences so easily!"

Inspiration from collaboration

Alexander learned of the project from art faculty member Ben Entner last year, and jumped at the chance to keep growing her creative process. She works -- out of Montoya's eyesight -- on a sculpture inspired by their talks. It is her first time creating a piece that way, she said.

"I'm proud of what I have so far," Alexander said. "Hopefully, Mariola likes it as much as I do."

Reid, operating the camera, said he has enjoyed the exchange of cultures in the project, and believes his work on the documentary has advanced his career aspirations. 

"The broader thing I take away from it is the ability to capture what they are doing," he said. "It's going to be my life's work, and it's pretty amazing I get to do it here at Oswego. The facilities, the equipment are so great, too."

Suárez, who will talk about the project just prior to Coburn's appearance, said, "Collaborations are not easy. Putting that puzzle together is difficult -- you are the conductor of a big orchestra. But it's worth it."

The April 17 event is free and open to the public. For information about parking on campus, visit

An Explorations in Diversity and Academic Excellence Grant from the SUNY Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion supports a wide range of campus programs, including this one, in the "Many Voices: One Oswego: Diversity and Inclusion Through the Arts" series.