Annual Folkmoot festival features healthy dose of WCU student, staff, faculty involvement

WCU student Kayla Hobbs, a marketing major from Statesville, is fulfilling an internship this summer at Folkmoot headquarters in Waynesville.

Western Carolina University students, faculty and staff are playing an increasingly important role behind the scenes in organizing and staging Folkmoot USA, the Haywood County-based international festival of folk music and dance that kicks up its heels for the 34th year beginning Thursday, July 20.

From faculty and staff members serving on Folkmoot’s Board of Directors to students carrying out internships in marketing and working as guides for the visiting performers, a large Catamount contingency is involved in mounting both the summer festival and Folkmoot’s expanding array of year-round programming.

That growing relationship between the university and the official North Carolina international folk festival is due, at least in part, to the spousal relationship between the organization’s executive director and a member of WCU’s administration.

It certainly gives Angie and Brandon Schwab something to talk about when they get home at night.

Brandon Schwab came to WCU as associate provost in July 2014 and wife Angie was appointed executive director of Folkmoot in March 2015. They quickly realized the opportunity for greater involvement by WCU students and employees in the annual festival, which since its founding in 1984 has brought some 8,000 dancers and musicians from about 200 nations to Western North Carolina to share their culture.

“Western Carolina University is increasingly recognized for its commitment to engaging with the external community, building partnerships throughout the region and increasing global awareness,” Brandon Schwab said. “There may be no better example of how all three of these areas coalesce than with how our students, faculty and staff partner with Folkmoot.”

An increasingly important aspect of that partnership can be seen in the involvement of the WCU community in Folkmoot’s recently launched efforts to expand its programming from a festival taking place over one fortnight in July to additional activities throughout the entire year, Angie Schwab said.

“Folkmoot is about embracing diversity and celebrating culture. In the last two years, we’ve expanded from an annual festival to year-round programming and have reached out to WCU faculty to access special knowledge and authentic cultural experiences for our audiences,” she said. “The connection has been transformational. Truly, individuals at WCU have been the largest contributors to Folkmoot’s year-round programming.”

Among the activities that are part of the new programming effort was last September’s “friendship dinner” co-hosted by WCU’s Office of International Programs and Services at which students from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Libya, Iraq and other Middle Eastern nations prepared a meal of lamb, chicken, rice, vegetables and hummus, and demonstrated Middle Eastern dance and Arabic writing. Angie Schwab called the event “life-changing for some attendees.” IPS also co-hosted a Chinese New Year celebration – featuring Chinese food, crafts and traditional New year activities – that was the best-attended dinner Folkmoot has ever had, she said.

Thousands of dancers and musicians from around the world have performed at Folkmoot during its 33-year run.

The university also plays a large role in Folkmoot’s new Cultural Conversations program, where Western North Carolina residents discuss issues on topics such as xenophobia, ethnic stereotyping, structural racism, civic disenfranchisement and cultural appropriation. The conversations, which also may include WCU international students and faculty or members of Folkmoot’s visiting dance groups, are facilitated by subject-matter experts, many of whom are from WCU.

“Cultural Conversations training has helped to build cultural leadership in the western counties, and I can say that we couldn’t have made these contributions without key individuals that come from Western Carolina University,” Angie Schwab said. “As director, I am beyond grateful, and I can say without reservation that our organization’s vibrancy is directly connected to the WCU community.”

The Mountain Heritage Center is another frequent Folkmoot collaborator and, over the past few years, has evaluated the organization’s collection of memorabilia representing nations that have participated in the event since its inception and helped develop educational activities and exhibits, said Pam Meister, director of the center.

“The Mountain Heritage Center team agreed that the collection was of great educational value and had enormous potential both for K-12 school programs and for public programming,” Meister said. “Angie worked with the Center for Service Learning to put together a team of student volunteers to do initial sorting, labeling and storage of the collection.”

Last year, the Mountain Heritage Center and University Print Shop created a set of exhibits for the auditorium of the Folkmoot Friendship Center in Waynesville, including three photomurals of international performers paired with dress forms displaying actual Folkmoot costumes, said Meister, who also will be emceeing one of this year’s performances.

Ling Gao LeBeau, director of IPS at WCU, serves on Folkmoot’s group relations committee and advises the organization on visas and international travel issues that frequently affect the visiting performance troupes. Jill Cargile, director of the Intensive English Program, and Lane Perry, director of the Center for Service Learning, serve on the Folkmoot Board of Directors.

Several students are working through internships opportunities and class-based service-learning projects and as front-line volunteers, both for this summer’s festival season as well as for year-round programming.

One of those students is senior Kayla Hobbs, a marketing major from Statesville who is completing an internship this summer at Folkmoot, a position that entails writing, content marketing, social media posting and advertising sales and production.

“Interning at Folkmoot has given me an outlook on the professional world and allowed me to get some real-world marketing and public relations experience. There is also a great community around Folkmoot. I couldn’t ask to work with better staff or volunteers,” Hobbs said.

“I think it is very important for students to interact with individuals from other cultures in order to have a better understanding of ideas that are different from their own. Many companies now work on an international level, and students getting to interact with individuals from other countries prior to entering the workforce will give them an opportunity for professional and social relationships on a global level,” she said.

That opportunity to gain a global perspective is what makes WCU’s partnership so special, Perry said.

“It is rare to find an organization anywhere whose primary focus is international relationships through cultural exchange and engagement. What is even more exciting is that this very type of organization is literally in WCU’s neighborhood,” he said. “I believe that what Folkmoot organizes is needed by our community, region and institution. They expose and engage all of us to the wider world by creating a world within.”

Although WCU has been a frequent host for Folkmoot performances over the years, no on-campus event is scheduled for the 2017 edition of the festival. For more information about the 34th annual festival, including a performance schedule, visit the website folkmoot.org.