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Making Festival of Cultures a Virtual Event

“The AE&L ReMix Team Challenge provided us the perfect structure to help us meet the challenge and stay true to the heart of the Festival.”


by Natalie Detert

Team Members Project Summary:
  • Natalie Detert
  • Becky Payton
  • Carol Coffey
  • Debbie Tuler
  • Heidi Gordon
  • Peer Coach: Michelle Ford, Virginia Department of Corrections
For 16 years, TJACE@PVCC has coordinated the Charlottesville Festival of Cultures, an in-person celebration of the cultural diversity of their community to build bridges and showcase the contributions of their students. In 2021, the pandemic challenged them to go virtual and completely rethink the mission and design of the Festival. Their project addressed how to use Project Based Learning to engage their planning team, instructors, and students to produce a completely new design, refocused on student and community learning and engagement.


Festival of Cultures advertisement

For 16 years, the mission of the Charlottesville Festival of Cultures has remained steadfast: to cultivate unity within our diversity by building bridges of understanding and respect. The Festival grew out of a desire at Thomas Jefferson Adult & Career Education at Piedmont Virginia Community College (TJACE@PVCC) to offer our students, particularly our immigrant and refugee students, a platform in the community to highlight their contributions. Each year on a Saturday in May, the Festival took place in a city park, offering performances, food, artisans, activities, and cultural exhibits—and growing to an attendance of about 3,000 by 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic shut down the Festival of Cultures in 2020, leaving a hole in the community and depriving TJACE of its signature event. Despite the uncertainty ahead, we formed a planning team in that fall to explore the possibility of offering a virtual event, a daunting task that took us out of our comfort zone and into brand new territory. From the beginning, our goal was to return to our roots by keeping the focus on our students and our educational mission. The AE&L ReMix Team Challenge provided us the perfect structure to help us meet the challenge and stay true to the heart of the Festival.

Once we had the TJACE planning team in place and committed to AE&L’s project-based learning milestones, we gathered key stakeholders and partners which included the TJACE instructors and students for content creation, PVCC IT for website design and creation, PVCC Marketing and Media Relations for promotion, and key volunteers both longstanding and new. Most importantly, we used focus groups and surveys to engage our students in the creation of a virtual festival, asking them what a virtual festival might look like, what components were essential from their viewpoint, and what theme resonated with them. 

As a result, our theme became Many Cultures, Many Gifts, One Home and we created a virtual Festival of Cultures with three components. First, we offered a handful of “Live Events” via Zoom that would allow participants to engage in a cultural topic or activity along with others. Second, we organized Community Collaborations to connect key community partners and organizations, many with an enduring relationship with the Festival, to our students and residents. Finally, we engaged our students in the creation of Cultural Exhibits

Cultural Exhibits have always been the heart of the Festival. In order to successfully go virtual, the creation of exhibits depended on the engagement of our instructors and students in a project-based design process of their own. First and foremost, we knew we had to meet students where they were, recognizing they were stretched thin by the pandemic and consequently resource challenged. Since their language and computer skills varied greatly, they requested additional support outside the classroom from their instructors as well as from a key volunteer with video editing experience, taking great pride in their work and wanting to put their best foot forward.

We visited classrooms and began the project-based design process by asking, “What does Culture/culture mean to you?” and “What is an important piece of your culture you would like to share?” We offered examples of flexible formats such as videos, slide presentations with or without narration, and photos with text, ranging from a few sentences to multi-paragraph essays. Participation was voluntary, but our goal was to offer the support and flexibility to ensure that anyone with an interest could submit an exhibit while also meeting educational objectives in the development of language and technology skills.

As a result, the Charlottesville Festival of Cultures went virtual in 2021 and set a new benchmark. TJACE instructors and students and the Charlottesville community accepted the challenge and exceeded our expectations. We offered 50+ student Cultural Exhibits and 20+ Community Collaborations and “Live Events.” 30+ countries were represented and participants explained that the format offered them a surprisingly intimate individual connection to students.

The TJACE Team learned that a virtual Festival does resonate with well with some of our students, community partners, and participants. It meets our educational objectives and engages students in project-based learning. Of course, the community misses an in-person event and the “Live Event” attendance was lower than anticipated due to Zoom fatigue late in the academic year, spring weather, and the easing of pandemic restrictions. However, we are adopting a long-term mindset, convinced that a virtual component to the Charlottesville Festival of Cultures will be modified but is here to stay. We built a website with staying power, a foundation on which to build. Student Cultural Exhibits are now part of a permanent collection that can be expanded in the future and used for educational and promotional purposes, true to the mission of the festival since its inception.

Take a look for yourself at the cultural exhibits, community collaborations, and live events on the 2021 Festival of Cultures Charlottesville website.

participant making baklava

Participant making baklava during a Charlottesville Festival of Cultures “Live Event,” a Cooking Demonstration with Khadija Hemmati of Khadija’s Kitchen, presented by the International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Padlet logoWe are including some of the comments received for each showcase team. View more of the showcase discussion in the 2020 AE&L Conference ReMix TeamShowcase Padlet.


“I was inspired by the Festival of Cultures and having the whole community come together with student created materials! “

“I expect no less from this amazing team.  You are an inspiration!  I cannot wait to hear about the outcomes!”

Natalie DetertNatalie Detert is currently an instructor at TJACE@PVCC where she teaches the core skills component of 4Work and coordinates the Charlottesville Festival of Cultures. She has been an educator in a variety of roles for thirty years and has taught both high school students and undergraduates as well as havingworked as a high school principal and an administrator in both higher education and the nonprofit sector. Natalie specializes in curriculum and teacher development and remains committed to advising students on college admissions in addition to tutoring students in academic reading and writing and English language learning.


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