The United States has a rich cultural heritage that involves the contributions and achievements of people from all over the world. To celebrate those accomplishments, the US designates many holidays to observe both individuals and groups important to American society. University campuses in the US embrace these holidays and month-long celebrations as opportunities to help students express their identities and recognize important issues. Learn how the USA expresses unity in diversity by celebrating the holidays and traditions listed below.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Day
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Christian minister, a nonviolent activist leader, and a spokesperson during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s. He championed equality and successfully led protests against discrimination and racism, which influenced the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is the third Monday of January, nearest to his birthday (January 15, 1929).
Many schools, such as Cleveland State University, host panel discussions and educational events discussing Dr. King and the social, economic, and political topics that mattered to him. Other schools, such as American University, participate in the MLK Day of Service by committing their time on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to helping out their local communities.
African American History Month
February is African American History Month, which is dedicated to commemorating the triumphs of Black Americans — in society, politics, art, and more — often against overwhelming odds. From Crispus Attucks to Harriet Tubman to President Barack Obama and beyond, African Americans have played an essential role in American history. Learn more about African American History Month.
Many university organizations in the US have robust calendars celebrating, honoring, and educating their fellow students about African American culture. Louisiana State University’s Black History Month Student Committee organizes a month-long series of events that includes open mic nights, jazz brunches, and a lecture series.
Lunar New Year
Lunar New Year — celebrated by many Asian cultures, usually between late January and mid-February, depending on the lunar calendar — marks the turning point from winter to spring. While each culture has its unique ways of ringing in the New Year, it is generally considered a time to celebrate with family and close friends.
The Auburn Global students at Auburn University celebrate Lunar New Year with lots of great food and red envelopes stuffed with prizes. The Friendship Association of Chinese Students and Scholars at the University of South Carolina hosted Chinese New Year 2020 festivities on campus with food from local Chinese restaurants, student performances, and fun cultural activities.
Women’s History Month
March is dedicated to celebrating women’s achievements and contributions to society, which are often underrepresented in American history books. In addition to recognizing female historical figures, scientists, and artists, the National Women’s History Alliance picks an annual theme for each Women’s History Month. The theme for 2021 is “Valiant Women of the Vote.” Learn more about Women’s History Month.
The University of Central Florida adopts the National Women’s History Alliance annual theme for their Women’s Heritage Month celebrations. The university hosts a series of activities and events, from Women’s History Month poster competitions to equal-pay activism.
Arab American Heritage Month
April is designated National Arab American Heritage Month (NAAHM) in the United States. During April, we recognize the important contributions made to US society by Americans of Arab descent. According to Arab America, there are approximately four million people from diverse backgrounds who identify as Arab Americans.
Events may vary each year, so check out the websites of the Arab American Cultural Center at UIC, the Multicultural Association at UMass Boston, and the Arab Student Association at American University for updated activities.
Ramadan is the most sacred month of the Islamic calendar, as it correlates to when God first shared the holy Quran with the Prophet Mohammad. Muslims worldwide observe Ramadan by fasting during daylight hours, praying, and acting charitably. Ramadan is also a time of celebration, especially during the three-day Eid al-Fitr — the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast — that ends the holy month. In 2021, Ramadan starts in April, but because it is based on a different calendar, the dates change every year.
The Muslim Student Association at Adelphi University hosts several events and activities during Ramadan, starting with the Welcome Ramadan Dinner. Students are invited to come together after fasting throughout the day to share a great meal at night.
Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage Month
May is dedicated to recognizing and celebrating the history, culture, and achievements of Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage. Learn more about Asian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
The University of Dayton hosts an annual Asian and Pacific American Heritage celebration in conjunction with the Dayton Art Institute. Throughout the month, the university and city organizations host lectures, films, luncheons, and more on topics such as “China in the ‘New Era’ of Xi Jinping: Foreign and Domestic Priorities.”
Jewish American History Month
May is National Jewish American History Month, a time to recognize the contributions made to US society by Americans of Jewish descent. Learn more about Jewish American History Month.
Many US university campuses sponsor a Hillel Student Association and/or similar groups to celebrate and support Jewish culture and traditions on campus. The Hillel College Guide offers an easily searchable campus database listing resources for Jewish students and allies at US universities, including Shorelight partners American University, Florida International University, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, among others.
LGBTQIA Pride Month
Pride month is held in June each year in the United States to commemorate the Stonewall Uprising of June 1969 in New York City — a series of protests, rallies, and other activism in response to repeated police harassment of the city’s gay, lesbian, and transgender population. The Stonewall Uprising, where the community fought back against law enforcement, is seen as the turning point in the fight for LGBTQIA rights in the US and is called one of the most important events in the Gay Liberation Movement. During Pride, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, and allied Americans celebrate and bring awareness, empowerment, and visibility to their communities.
Florida International University, named the friendliest LGBT campus in Florida by the South Florida Gay News, hosts several events during Pride Month, including marching in the Miami Beach Gay Pride parade.
On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, with news the Civil War had ended and all slaves were now free by decree of the Emancipation Proclamation. Since then, Juneteenth — also known as Freedom Day, Liberation Day, and Jubilee Day — has been celebrated in commemoration of the end of slavery and the beginning of freedom for African Americans in the United States.
With increasing awareness of Juneteenth nationwide, many campus organizations have sponsored events aligned with Black Lives Matter and similar racial justice groups. Adelphi University named Juneteenth a university employee holiday in 2020, and past events have included a Bridging the Gap community celebration at UIC and a lunch-and-learn with the football team at Auburn University.
French-American Heritage Month
July is designated National French-American Heritage Month in the United States to recognize the important contributions made to the US by Americans of French descent.
Many US universities offer French clubs, with activities celebrating French culture throughout the school year. Check out the French club websites at LSU, UIC, and UMass Boston to see just a few campus examples.
International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples
August 9 is designated International Day of the World’s Indigenous People in the United States and abroad. On International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, campuses raise awareness and advocate for protecting indigenous peoples’ rights worldwide. Learn more about the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
In past years, UIC has sponsored round dances and powwows, roundtable discussions, and supported ordinances to obtain official recognition for Indigenous People’s Day. Adelphi University has run special guest lectures highlighting Native American experiences. In 2020, the University of Utah affirmed its commitment to enduring relationships with Native communities by formally announcing an Indigenous Land Acknowledgment.
World Humanitarian Day
Every August 19, the world commemorates humanitarian workers killed or injured while working to provide critical and often life-saving support, relief, and protection to people in need. World Humanitarian Day is especially important now, as many first responders and front-line workers risk their lives every day to help combat the spread of COVID-19. Learn more about World Humanitarian Day.
World Humanitarian Day is a UN initiative, and many Model UN campus organizations offer university students the opportunity to support humanitarian activities throughout the calendar year. Check out Model UN groups at American University and FIU for top-ranked student organizations that champion rights for all.
Latinx Heritage Month
National Hispanic Heritage Month, or Latinx Heritage Month, starts September 15 and runs until October 15 and is dedicated to the history, culture, and achievements of this group of Americans. Learn more about National Hispanic Heritage Month.
The Center for Student Involvement at the University of Illinois Chicago hosts a series of activities and events to honor and recognize the contributions of Americans of the Hispanic and Latinx culture and heritage.
LGBT History Month
October is designated National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) History Month in the United States. Groups at universities in the United States acknowledge the contributions made to US society by LGBT communities. Included in the month-long calendar of events is National Coming Out Day, a time to recognize and celebrate the bravery of those who have embraced their identity. Learn more about LGBT History Month.
Día de los Muertos
The Day of the Dead — or Día de los Muertos — is a national celebration in Mexico and a day of remembrance for friends and family members who have died. While closely associated with the Catholic tradition of All Saints’ Day, Día de los Muertos is distinctly Mexican, with indigenous pre-Hispanic attributes that differ from locality to locality. Annual observances include the construction of ofrendas or altars to the deceased with offerings of their favorite things so that they will hear the prayers of the living.
The University Program Council at Auburn University hosts an annual Día de los Muertos celebration that includes food. Some traditional Día de los Muertos foods that may be served at campus celebrations include tortilla soup, tamales, pozole, and sweet treats such as flan and pan de los muertos, a soft roll sprinkled with sugar and topped with bone-shaped decorations.
Native American Heritage Month
The Native American nations have a rich and diverse culture that dates back thousands of years on the land that is now called the United States. November is a time to bring awareness to issues that are currently important to indigenous tribal nations’ descendants across the country. It is also a time to celebrate and remember the first nations’ histories and achievements. Learn more about Native American Heritage Month.
The University of Dayton hosts an annual colloquium on Native American identity and culture during Native American Heritage Month. Panel discussions and educational lectures take place throughout the month.
Trans Awareness Week
Transgender Awareness Week is usually held in the second week of November and is dedicated to bringing more awareness to transgender Americans and the issues they face. Transgender advocates celebrate through educational and advocacy-themed events throughout the week. November 20 is Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day to honor community members who have lost their lives in acts of anti-transgender violence.
Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains from all over the world join the five-day celebration known as Diwali, the Indian Festival of Lights. The Diwali festival usually occurs between late October and mid-November and celebrates new beginnings, the victory of light over darkness, wisdom over ignorance, and good over evil.
International Education Week
This one is to celebrate you! International Education Week is held around the third week of November and was created to bring awareness to the benefits of studying, learning, and exchanging experiences internationally. Learn more about International Education Week.
The University of Massachusetts Amherst celebrates international students’ impact on campus with a series of lectures, discussion panels, and opportunities to meet and talk with other students and professors during International Education Week.
International Day of Persons with Disabilities
December 3, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, is when we recognize the achievements of people living with disabilities and advocate for equity, inclusivity, and awareness. Learn more about the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.
The UN recognizes International Day of Persons with Disabilities, so Model UN groups may also sponsor activities. Check out the Model UN pages at the University of Kansas and the University of South Carolina for more details.
Human Rights Day
On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which “establishes the equal dignity and worth of every person.” Human Rights Day commemorates this declaration, which holds the Guinness Book of World Records for being the most translated document.
Similar to World Humanitarian Day and the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, look to Model UN groups for Human Rights Day activities. Additional campuses with Model UN chapters include the University of Dayton, the University of Illinois Springfield, and Western New England University.
Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga — an activist and professor of African American studies at California State University, Long Beach — to celebrate African American and Pan-African culture. The holiday begins on December 26 and ends on New Year’s Day.
At Cleveland State University, the Black Studies Program and Howard A. Mims African American Cultural Center hosts a pre-Kwanzaa celebration, the Kuumba Arts Festival. The festival features traditional performance art, including dance, speeches, and spirituals.
Come Celebrate on Campus
Campuses in the United States believe in inclusive education and unity in diversity, and host many different heritage and identity celebrations throughout the year. This list represents some of the more popular cultural heritage events, but often there are many more. University communities are welcoming places interested in honoring both the differences and commonalities shared between people worldwide, and what we can learn from each other.