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Around the World

Around the World is one of Potomac’s most popular and beloved annual celebrations – so much so that many people think of it as a tradition that goes back for generations. In fact, the event took on its current form less
than a decade ago. But the commitment to diversity, inclusion, and cultural appreciation that Around the World reflects is deeply ingrained at The Potomac School.

The event traces its history to another Potomac tradition, Book Fair. In addition to being open to students and faculty during the school day, Book Fair has traditionally included an evening component, offering alumni (and in some years, parents) the opportunity to enjoy a reception and browse the aisles of books for sale. This evening event, once called “Community Night,” took on a special flavor in 2007, when the Book Fair theme was Reading Around the World. With the leadership of the Parent Association’s Diversity Committee, that year’s Community Night included “international music and storytelling,” according to publicity materials from that time. The following year, Book Fair’s theme was Tall Tales from Around the World, and again, the Community Night component promised “entertainment, international music, and storytelling.”

Two community members in their national dress

Parent Malvika Paddock was instrumental in the development of Around the World, serving as the event’s cochair in three of its earliest years. She says, “I became involved in the early 2010s, as a member of the Parent Association’s Diversity Committee. By that time, Community Night included many of the same elements that Around the World has today – country displays, cultural performances, and foods from many lands – all organized by Potomac parents. Because the Diversity Committee also brought in speakers and worked on other activities, the PA eventually formed a separate committee to focus exclusively on organizing this annual celebration.”

In 2013, Malvika co-chaired the event with fellow Potomac parent Eunice Mazloom. Under their leadership, a whole new dimension was added – a daytime component that would enable Potomac students to visit the displays during school hours. Renamed “Community Day,” the event moved to a larger venue – the Upper School’s Chester Gym – to accommodate more participants. Malvika notes, “We also made the decision to focus on performances by members of the Potomac community. Before that, parents had sometimes recruited outside performers to play music, do readings, and so forth. But we thought, ‘There’s so much talent right here. Let’s keep the focus on Potomac students and families.’”

2014 was a watershed moment, with the celebration of the diverse cultural heritages of the Potomac community taking on a new identity. Malvika recalls, “It was always important to us that students be at the heart of this event. So we decided to hold a contest to allow students to select a new name for ‘Community Day’ – something that would more clearly reflect what the event was about. It was Ms. Bennett’s fourth grade class that came up with the name ‘Around the World.’” She adds, “That same year, we asked a talented Upper School student, Merritt Vance, to create a logo for the event.”

The Around the World name and logo have had staying power, helping to establish a recognizable identity for the annual event. The celebration continued to grow, with more Potomac families participating each year. The daytime component was retained so that classes could visit the exhibits and talk with the parents staffing the booths during the school day, without the press of crowds. In the evenings, things really came to life as families filled the Langstaff Auditorium to enjoy the Parade of Flags that opened the festivities and the student performances, then poured into the Chester Gym to view the displays and try delicious foods from many cultures. Year after year, the number of participants and attendees increased, as Around the World steadily gained popularity.

Dancers perform a dance

Then came the pandemic.

In March 2020, Governor Ralph Northam ordered all school campuses in Virginia to close. Around the World, scheduled for April, had to be canceled. While there wasn’t time to rethink the event that year, Potomac’s intrepid parents found a creative way to bring Around the World back the following spring.

Neha Sharma, who co-chaired the event in 2021, explains, “We went virtual. We began by inviting families to submit material that told the stories of their cultures. People sent in written descriptions, photographs, poems, recipes, and video clips of songs, dances – even cooking demonstrations! Then we created a Google Earth project; there was a world map and when a visitor clicked on a location, the content that members of our community had submitted would pop up.” She notes, “We also included recommendations of local restaurants that offer authentic cuisine from various cultures.” While not too many people were going to restaurants right then, some of the recommended businesses offered delivery, and Potomac families bookmarked the information for future use.

This April, Around the World was back in full force. Neha agreed to lead the effort again, in partnership with co-chair Haneez Amr-Zattam. Neha says, “We considered holding the event outdoors this year, but given a forecast of rain, we moved everything into the Chester Gym – the booths, the performances, everything. Honestly, I don’t think we were expecting the huge crowd that turned out. We had 37 booths representing different countries and cultures. The displays were beautiful, there was so much amazing food, and hundreds of people came. It was clear that everyone was happy to be back together again, in person, for this well-loved event.”

Asked about this year’s highlights, Neha said, “One thing I noticed was how many Upper School students wanted to be involved. We had a number of student performers – both individuals and groups – from the Upper School, and the Muslim Student Association volunteered to host a booth. This has always been a family event, with students from different divisions participating, but I definitely think we had more Upper School involvement than in the past.”

She added, “Another high point for me, and I think many other people, was the performance by Oleksandr Soloviov, a 10-year-old boy from Ukraine whose family is staying with a Potomac family. When he heard about the event, Oleksandr asked if he could sing a song. Though he’s not a Potomac student, he and his family are members of our extended community now, and we were delighted to include him. He sang a patriotic song from Ukraine and, in light of what’s happening in that part of the world, it was very moving.”

Neha concludes, “I think the value of this event lies in the way it brings everybody together. It gives the students – and all of us – opportunities to learn more about each other. And it’s heartwarming to see the pride people have in their various heritages and how generous they are in sharing this important part of their lives with our community.”

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