Westerville North mural project celebrates students from all over the world

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The hallmark piece behind Westerville North High School’s new Cardinal and Gold Union is starting to take shape.

The wall along the coffee shop is covered in large puzzle pieces where dozens of students — from those in Kristie Cameron’s English for English Learners class to those in Karlee Michel’s Spanish classes — have painted the flags of 30 countries in which students across the district were born. Eventually, the mural will include all the countries of the world. 

For nearly a year, the school has been working with Community Refugee & Immigration Services (CRIS) on the mural project that recognizes and celebrates the diversity within the building and in the community.

“The space is about celebrating who we are as a school and what we’re all about,” Principal Kurt Yancey said.

The mural will set the tone for the gallery space that will soon be home to the Cardinal and Gold Union, a college-like student union with the coffee shop and new seating. Westerville North’s project is the largest student-driven mural CRIS has worked on, said Jeremy Hollon, associate director of community partnerships for CRIS.

“A lot of times we’ll talk to students and get their approval and we’ll do the work,” he said. “Westerville is very much, ‘Students should talk about what they want and be part of the work.’ This is definitely the most hands-on mural right now that we’ve had.”

Cameron and Michel, both of whom advise the school’s International Club, jumped at the opportunity to help, hoping to give her students a creative outlet to be part of something bigger than themselves.

She integrated the mural in a research project for her English for English Learners class, where students researched countries different from their own and learned about their flags, their designs and the significance of their colors. Students then had to sketch the flags before drawing and painting them for the mural. 

With no International Festival this year, Cameron said the mural offers her students another venue to celebrate and showcase their countries. 

“This is their time to shine because they don’t get a place to feature their background a lot,” she said. “They are making history. They are making a change in the school that’s going to affect generations.”

Westerville is the second-largest district CRIS serves, Hollon said. He has worked with more than a dozen Central Ohio schools on murals, including Fouse Elementary. The projects have served as an opportunity to engage with immigrant families, connect students with their programs and learn if parents need help with jobs, housing or legal assistance. 

“It’s easier to know them, understand them and learn where they are coming from,” he said.

Junior Nira Cruz has participated in CRIS’ mentorship program since coming to Westerville from Mexico last year. The group as well as her teachers and peers at Westerville North have helped her transition to a new country, a new language and a new culture. She loves how the mural brings both of her worlds together to help students from other countries feel a sense of belonging. 

“When students see the mural, I hope they will feel welcome, like at home,” she said. “Even though we are from different countries, we are welcome here.”