Connection to Hungary spurs scholar’s passion for cultural engagement

UMSL’s Rita Csapó-Sweet (left) receives a letter announcing her University of Missouri President’s Award for Cross-Cultural Engagement from Chris Weisbrook, director of academic programs at the University of Missouri System.

Rita Csapó-Sweet grew up a first-generation Hungarian-American. Her parents came to the United States after World War II. Because of her ethnic background, she felt a little out of place growing up in America. But a college trip to Hungary remedied her feelings of alienation and carved out a path that saw her become a cultural ambassador of sorts.

“Suddenly, I understood why I had always felt myself an outsider,” said Csapó-Sweet, associate professor of media studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. “My year abroad put the narrative of my life into context. A foot in both worlds has served me well during the past 40 years.”

In late April, Csapó-Sweet, of St. Louis, was honored by the four-campus University of Missouri System with the UM President’s Award for Cross-Cultural Engagement. The award recognizes her efforts to build cultural and educational exchange projects with Eastern European universities. She established institutional links with the University of Debrecen in Hungary, University of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina and University of Dubrovnik in Croatia.

“Rita is more than deserving of this prestigious award,” Barbara Harbach, professor of music at UMSL, wrote in a nomination letter for the award. “She has worked passionately in helping victims of war in several of these countries but most importantly in cultivating exchanges for faculty and students that can benefit from the understanding of learning to appreciate different cultures with their unique ethnicities and customs.”

In 1995, Csapó-Sweet developed an educational and cultural exchange program with the University of Debrecen in Hungary, with a grant from the U.S. Department of State and International Studies and Programs at UMSL.

For decades, Csapó-Sweet’s international research has been funded by the Soros Foundation, IREX, and the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program.

And she recently received her third UM Research Board grant to curate a program of films from the former Yugoslavia at the 2013 St. Louis International Film Festival. Her documentaries have been broadcast nationally and internationally, and she is the faculty adviser for the UMSL Film Production Society.

Through the efforts of Csapó-Sweet and Lejla Panjeta, associate professor of visual arts and communication at the International University of Sarajevo, UMSL signed student-faculty exchange agreements in 2007 with the Universities of Sarajevo in Bosnia and the University of Dubrovnik in Croatia. In 2010, UMSL students began taking classes in Sarajevo, and this fall two students from Sarajevo will study at UMSL. Csapó-Sweet will donate funds from her UM President’s Award to bring the two students to St. Louis.

Since making her first trip back to Hungary in 1973 to study at the  Royal Academy of Fine Art and discover her heritage and family roots, Csapó-Sweet has frequently visited Eastern Europe.

“That one year of being abroad completely changed my life,” she said. “I realized I had this whole other part of me that I didn’t really know existed.”

For Csapó-Sweet, creating UMSL’s cultural exchange programs is a career highlight. She said the programs can be a salve for young people experiencing similar emotions, and even if students aren’t looking to fill a void, exchange programs are a unique and valuable experience.

“It’s easy for a child to feel like an outsider if you have cultural roots elsewhere,” Csapó-Sweet said. “You never really feel completely 100 percent part of this society. If there’s some chance you can go back to a place where you have family, where you have another language, students should grab the opportunity. Because after college you might never have a chance again.”

This summer, she’ll return to Hungary, Sarajevo and Dubrovnik to continue her research and strengthen ties on behalf of UMSL.

The Academic Affairs Office at the UM System administers a total of six UM President’s Awards. The annual, systemwide awards are open to faculty from UMSL, the University of Missouri–Columbia, the University of Missouri–Kansas City and Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.

In addition to Csapó-Sweet, four UMSL faculty members won a UM President’s Award this year: Vicki Sauter, professor of information systems, for university citizenship; Susann Farberman, associate teaching professor of nursing, for inter-campus collaborationDawn Garzon, teaching professor of nursing, for inter-campus collaboration; and Carl Hoagland, the Emerson Electric Endowed Professor of Teaching and Learning, for innovative teaching.

Csapó-Sweet and her colleagues will receive their awards June 13 at a celebration in Columbia, Mo.

Media coverage:
St. Louis Bosnian


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