International Center of the Capital Region expands cross-cultural efforts

Jennifer Zhao, executive director of the International Center of the Capital Region

Jennifer Zhao, executive director of the International Center of the Capital Region

TROY — The International Center of the Capital Region is making long-term plans to expand its outreach but is facing a couple of short-term obstacles: the COVID pandemic and the turmoil in eastern Europe.

Two delegations that the center is trying to bring to the Capital Region are from Russia and Moldova.

Jennifer Zhao, recently named executive director of the International Center, said it’s unclear whether the Russians still will be able to visit, now that their country has invaded Ukraine.

Moldova, meanwhile, has declared a state of emergency and closed its airspace after the attack on its northern neighbor, which it expects to cause an influx of refugees.

If the two delegations do visit, they will need host families during their time here, Zhao said, and that has been a tough request to fill amid COVID-19, even as the pandemic eases in severity.

The International Center’s mission has evolved since it was founded in 1956. “In those early years they were really focused on immigration and refugee settlement,” Zhao said.

In 2005, it transitioned to education and outreach because the Refugee and Immigrant Support Services of Emmaus and The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants were providing direct support for new immigrants in the Albany area.

“Some of our work is also related to what they were doing,” Zhao said, adding that she’d like the International Center to interact more with the two other groups.

The Russian visitors would visit to learn more about how New York encourages technology entrepreneurs. The Moldovans, who are legislators, were going to see the state Legislature. 

Both visits were arranged through the Open World program, an initiative funded by the Congressional Office for International Leadership that requires the visitors to stay in private homes so as to increase the degree of cultural exchange between host and guest countries.

“In terms of the cultural exchange, part of it is to help our population here meet with foreign visitors,” Zhao said. “The other part is to promote the Capital Region to the rest of the world.”

Just as some people in other parts of the United States don’t know much about New York state beyond New York City, many citizens of other countries don’t know there are two New Yorks, she said.

Meanwhile, with a much narrower geographic focus, the International Center is working to create a Capital Region ethnic restaurant guide. Zhao said one of the easiest and most-effective ways to connect across cultures is food, because it’s a universal human need and want. But the guide will highlight the immigrant success stories behind the restaurants, as well.

Zhao became executive director of the International Center in November, the same month it found a permanent home at Hudson Valley Community College.

She’s a native of China who grew up outside Cleveland, Ohio, and came to the Capital Region in 2005 to work for GE Research in Niskayuna as a materials science engineer.

Zhao said her own life journey has taught her the importance of the cross-cultural understanding the International Center seeks to create: She immigrated with her family from China at age 9 speaking no English, has encountered ignorance and curiosity more than hostility in her world travels, and married a native of Taiwan, bringing together families with different points of views.

Zhao left GE in 2017 after giving birth to her third child but remained active beyond her family life with entrepreneurial ventures and a successful run for the Niskayuna Board of Education, on which she still serves.

She started work with the International Center last June, then took over as director in November. It’s still a part-time position, but she hopes to grow the non-profit and expand her role to full-time.

Prospective Open World hosts can learn more about the program with a virtual open house on Wednesday, March 2, and Saturday, March 12. Details and registration are on the International Center of the Capital Region’s website:

Reach John Cropley at [email protected], 518-395-3104 or @cropjohn on Twitter.

Categories: News

mshelden March 1, 2022
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CORRECTION: The Congressional Office for International Leadership (COIL) administers the Open World program, not the State Department. Congress funds COIL. @OWprogram