The University of Findlay is celebrating its 50th anniversary of International Night, and the Wallen family that started it all. This year’s International Night, which is free and open to the public, will be held from 5:30-8 p.m. Friday, March 29 in Koehler Fitness and Recreation Complex on North Main Street.
The intercultural celebration for those of all ages is one of the most popular and anticipated events on campus. About 1,500 flock to Koehler to travel the globe courtesy of UF international students, who share their culture and country with guests via food, fashion, music, dancing and other activities.
The annual tradition began with Raeburn “Rae” Wallen, a world religions professor at UF who frequently welcomed UF students from all over the globe to stay with his family.
“Some (students) became like family,” said Tammy Wallen Gory, the oldest of Rae and Marcelene Wallen’s three children.
Rae also loved to travel, and took more than 70 trips overseas. Tammy remembers that her family started traveling together every summer exploring the United States (they visited 48 states, excluding Alaska and Vermont), and eventually travelled the world. Her dad would recruit domestic students when he travelled, and eventually organized educational tours that earned them college credits.
“Dad believed that true learning comes from direct experiences and collective sharing,” Tammy explained. The Wallen family had plenty of those, even when they weren’t traveling. Tammy said students would often come to their house to make ice cream, eat, participate in potlucks, share recipes and teach cooking to others. The delicious food, accompanied by captivating stories, made for memorable meals. International students also frequently brought food from their home countries to share with the Wallens.
“Students were always at our house, weekends or on vacations,” Tammy said. With the increase in visitors, Marcelene suggested finding a larger space to gather. The conversation then turned into the possibility of a larger forum in which to share food, traditions and cultures with the rest of the campus community.
International Night began in 1969 and has since been held each year. The event continues to embrace the ideology of inclusion embraced by Rae as a religious philosophy. He defined religion as “a way of life,” said Tammy, and continually challenged his students to explore commonalities between religion rather than focus on differences.
The concept of diversity can be challenging, and sometimes such practices involve taking risks and questioning learned beliefs. But because Rae was a man who “invited everyone in,” he felt it was important to bring a variety of cultures together to better understand the world, and to foster a community of global thinkers, Tammy continued. Sharing stories, food and dance are traditions that all cultures and religions enjoy, she noted. “And everyone who knew my dad knew he LOVED to eat, told tons of stories, and yes, he even tried to dance,” she said.
Rae was in charge of International Night for 31 years. Tammy said it was “his favorite thing to do at UF and what he missed the most after he retired” in 1999.
Rae’s contributions to UF extended beyond this special event. He was awarded an honorary doctor of world religions degree in 1995, and, along with Marcelene, was named a Distinguished Alumnus in 2009. He died in 2014, but his legacy lives on with International Night.