New Arts International for spring: FMU combines previous events after COVID-19

After being forced to take a two-year break due to COVID-19, FMU introduced the Arts International Festival, a combination of the Art’s Alive and international festivals previously held during separate semesters.   

The event, sponsored by a group of entities within the surrounding area, was held on Saturday, April 9, to appreciate the arts and international cultures within the Pee Dee region.   

“It brings together diversity with the community and inclusion,” said Christopher Kennedy, vice president of Student Life and professor of history. “We’re trying to let everyone in the Pee Dee area get a taste of different cultures. There is an education component with the exposure of different cultures, but it’s just a fun day for people to welcome in spring.”   

The festival took place on the university’s campus in the Smith University Center (UC), on the UC Lawn and in the Chapman Auditorium. It was free and open to the public, as has been tradition throughout the years, and this year, it was also free of charge to vendors.   

“We didn’t charge any vendor fees,” Kennedy said. “We are trying to give people a chance to get back on their feet again after COVID-19.”  

Kennedy said that the future growth of the Arts International festival will determine the existence of vendor fees, but not until there are guaranteed returns for the different arts and crafts vendors.   

During the festival, many activities were offered to the Florence community, including but not limited to: various cultural music showcases (hula dancers, bagpipe players and flamenco dancers), the FMU Student Cell Cinema Festival, food trucks, a car show, the Swamp Fox Grand Prix Pedal Kart Race, activities for children and numerous STEAM-related booths made to pique interest in the subjects of science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.   

“[The purpose] is to feature local, as well as regional and international, cuisine, arts and crafts all together,” said Andy Matthews, Student Life specialist for student development. “You have the music as well. Everything from reggae to jazz to rock. You’ll find it on the main stage as well as with the dances going on.”  

The international cultural booths were handled mostly by Melissa Dungan, the program specialist for the international programs. Dungan’s goal was to highlight the different international presences in the local area.   

“There were some people we already had in mind,” Dungan said. “For instance, Academic Year in America was an organization already in line in 2020, and they reached out to us for this year.”   

Academic Year in America brings exchange students to the U.S. They had about 16 students from different countries and hosted 11 booths at the festival to discuss their cultures.   

Kennedy was able to talk with an exchange student from Ukraine at her cultural booth.   

“She is having a difficult time with the war going on back home, but she’s very thankful for being here and was explaining things about her culture and her country to us,” Kennedy said.   

Dungan also reached out to local international communities within Florence, such as the Filipino community, the Indian community and the Greek Orthodox community. Though not every community was able to attend, Dungan hopes to expand the representation of different cultures in future years.  

“We didn’t have as many booths as we would have liked, but people were probably hesitant coming out of COVID-19. Hopefully, next year there will be more,” Dungan said.   

According to Dungan, the biggest takeaway for FMU is the ability to gain exposure for different international cultures from home.    

“I definitely think that the Arts International Festival will help our students gain some insight into the different cultures that are out there,” Dungan said. “There are so many different opportunities out there to learn about different cultures. By hosting the Arts International Festival, we are bringing a little bit of international culture here, but in the long run, we do hope students do a semester abroad.”  

Dungan also wants to showcase the international students that are already present on FMU’s campus.   

“We do have full-time international students here as well that are bringing culture and different experiences to FMU,” Dungan said. “We want to integrate it all.”  

FMU also planned to host a Cardboard Boat Regatta, where several organizations would construct and sail cardboard boats on campus. Due to inclement weather, the event was held on April 22 instead.  

While the weather did see the setback of one event, the rest of the festival was full of families and students alike.  

One of such attendees was Axel Shannon, a freshman visual arts major and first-place winner of the FMU Cell Cinema 60-Second Film submission.    

“The Arts International event was awesome for the first year back from Covid,” said Shannon. “It was smaller than it normally is, but it was a good event. It was really fun.”  

As a native of Florence, Shannon is no stranger to the events on campus; however, Arts International was a novel festival to celebrate both the arts and the international cultures present in the region.   

“I have grown up in Florence, and it’s been an event we’ve attended every year,” Shannon said. “I had a chance to talk to the high school foreign exchange students in the University Center, and they got to explain their cultures and where they’re from.”    

With COVID-19 restrictions falling and more people willing to attend and host events, the Arts International Festival will likely continue to grow in activities in the years to come.    

“I’m hoping that no one got ill because of this, but I think people were dying to do something,” Kennedy said. “They were dying to go out and have these types of festivals. I think we were trying to be the first one in the spring.”   

The university agreed spring was the best semester to hold the festival due to several events both on campus and in the Florence community that occurred throughout the fall.  

“The campus looks great – the azaleas are blooming – it’s just the perfect time to do something like this,” Kennedy said. “Everyone just wants to get through the doldrums of COVID-19 and the winter.”  

Kennedy gave a special shoutout to the grounds and facilities workers for helping set up the event. With a combination of old and new events, booths and performances, the festival organizers hope to see the Arts International Festival grow in the coming years.  

“Years and years ago, it was huge,” Kennedy said. “We’re talking thousands of people attended – and it was all across campus. I’d like to fill this whole field up with arts and crafts vendors. This is the start to try and get it back on track again and bring people out.”