By MARTY LEVINE
The new director of Pitt’s Nationality Rooms, Kati R. Csoman, would seem destined for this job.
“I had always admired Maxine Bruhns,” Csoman said of her predecessor, who led the program from 1965 until her death in 2020.
Csoman’s father was a refugee from the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviet takeover, which inspired Csoman to seek and win a 1988 scholarship from the Nationality Rooms program to study Hungarian abroad. Before Csoman left, Bruhns invited her to tea.
“She was helping me develop a skill set, because it was my first time abroad — a skill set that was appropriate as a representative of the Nationality Rooms,” Csoman recalled. They met again when Csoman returned.
The experience “changed my life,” she said. It led her on a new path “to be doing work that can be so meaningful for me.”
After graduation from the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences in 1989, Csoman worked at the American embassy in Budapest and then returned to join the University Center for International Studies — which oversees the Nationality Rooms — as a graduate student.
Soon she was volunteering with the committee overseeing the Hungarian Nationality Room as its secretary or chair for 15 years. Bruhns also served as a mentor to Csoman during that time.
For all that background, Csoman said she is still getting settled in the job and developing her plans, which include deepening connections with Pitt units and Pittsburgh organizations that contribute to the wealth of multicultural experiences on campus and in the city.
The other part of her job title — director of intercultural exchange programs — means she also will be seeking support for and organizing scholarships, study abroad opportunities and the visits of international scholars to Pitt.
But of course it is the Nationality Rooms that have the highest profile here. Each of them tells a story of an ethnic community. And although each would seem to be set in a very specific historical era, “There was always this idea that they could be living embodiments of intercultural exchange,” Csoman said. She sees “the possibility of exploring the history and heritage of a room, but through a thematic lens, moving beyond a cultural lens.”
For instance, the Hungarian Room, although conceived and begun nearly two decades before 1956, could still be used to focus visitors on Hungary’s refugees of the mid-20th century — and how their plight relates to other refugee crises, including the cases of Afghanistan refugees today. “What connections can we make there?” she said.
She hopes to prompt room committees to share such perspectives more often with the community. “They were intended to be apolitical,” she said of the Nationality Rooms, but they still present opportunities for visitors to gain historical perspectives on current events and important themes that run across cultures and decades.
Of course, the Nationality Rooms are used every day as classrooms. “I think people may not realize how much of a partnership there is between those who developed and those who use and maintain the rooms,” she said. Two rooms are currently in progress: the Finnish room and the Iranian room. The Filipino classroom was the most recent room to be opened.
In-person tours of the Nationality Rooms are still being conducted, Csoman said, albeit on a smaller scale than normal. Registrations can be made online, and masking is required. And there are virtual tours being conducted live by a crew of student guides, including tours focused on such themes as women, wartime and science.
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-758-4859.
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