NORMAN — Country music and laughter filled the Cedar Crest Farm’s barn with life Thursday as hundreds of American and international students ate barbecue and danced on the soft dirt floor.
The University of Oklahoma’s Cousins program has been teaming up with the Leo and Doris Whinery family for 18 years to help bring students together and allow many the opportunity to visit an Oklahoma ranch.
Many students enjoyed that opportunity. They watched the horses graze in the pasture and some kicked off their shoes, burying their feet in the soft dirt while learning how to line dance.
The fast-paced country music had students in lines of five and six holding on to each other while circling around the barn.
“It’s really fantastic,” said Ozan Ozkan, a student with the Cousins program from Turkey. “This is my first time on a farm. They have horses; it has the feel of the real cowboy stuff.”
Ozkan and his friend, Furkan Budak, also from Turkey, are from Istanbul where they lived with around 15 million other people. The change from a large city to a smaller one like Norman was a good experience for them, they said.
Sakhile Mahlalela, of South Africa, also has been enjoying his time at OU.
“I like it. The campus is peaceful enough for me to be productive at school and lively enough to go out and have fun,” Mahlalela said. “It’s balanced.”
One student from England, Rich Dawson, has attended all of the OU Cousins’ events and said he was pleasantly surprised by his Oklahoma experience.
“I had a really enthusiastic Cousin,” Dawson said. “It’s a great program and good for integrating students into American culture.”
Dawson said he thought OU would be more of an Oklahoma cowboy experience, but it was much more liberal than what he expected.
“Oklahoma itself has been fantastic,” he said. “My favorite thing is the blue sky.”
Dawson was lucky to be matched up with an enthusiastic Cousin through the program. Several others said their Cousins often only met with them once or not at all, but that did not ruin their experiences with the program or at OU.
Matthias Schonbachler, of Switzerland, said everyone in the OU Cousins program has been nice and has helped them get to know Oklahoma.
“I’ve met lots of people and it’s been great on a personal and professional level. I wouldn’t change this experience for anything,” said Rianna Nelson, of Spain.
“I agree with that. People ask me, ‘Why Oklahoma?’ but I wouldn’t want to go to any other place,” Schonbachler said. “OU is amazing. They take care of you and look out for you.”
Many OU students attending were not with the OU Cousins program. OU sophomore Payne Parker heard about the event through friends. As a Texas native, he wanted to be where there was two-stepping and barbecue.
“I think it’s a cool experience and I wanted to see international students interacting with what I grew up with,” Parker said.
The event also brought back a former Cousin, OU sophomore Meghan Gallagher. She said she enjoys being around everybody and, as an international studies major, the event allows her to interact with all the different cultures and try to show them ours.
This was the first time the Whinery family has hosted the event without one of the driving forces behind it, Leo Whinery Sr. The professor emeritus of law at OU died in November, but the Whinery family decided to stick with tradition and dedicated this year’s event to him.
“He would’ve wanted it that way,” said Whinery’s wife, Doris.
It was the first time all Whinery family members attended the event together, including Doris, sons Leo Whinery Jr. and his fiancee Karen, Dr. Michael Whinery and Webster and Terry Whinery and their son, Webster Whinery Jr.
The event came about after OU President David Boren and his wife, Molly Shi, were visiting with a Malaysian student around graduation time years ago. The student told them there were two things he was disappointed about during his time spent at OU.
First, the friends he made were international students and he didn’t get to know many American students. Second, he came to Oklahoma and never got to visit a farm or a ranch.
This is when the Borens decided to approach Leo Whinery Sr., who had taught both of them while they were in law school. The event was to be a trial run they thought would last a year.
“Eighteen years later and here we all are,” Boren said.
Boren presented a bronze plaque to the Whinery family during the event to memorialize Leo and all he did for the university and international students. The plaque will be installed in the student union on the main floor later this week.