Aug 8, 2016
Posted in: News
Robertson School Professors work with VCU, Iraqi students to help area nonprofits
Dashty Frya knew how he wanted to spend his summer after talking with some of his close friends back home in northern Iraq — he wanted to travel to the United States.
More specifically, he wanted to attend the seventh annual Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program hosted by the Virginia Commonwealth University Global Education Office and held at the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
When his peers came back from the IYLEP program and shared their stories of coming to the U.S. and being exposed to a new city and a new way of learning how to assist nonprofit organizations achieve their missions, Frya knew he wanted to experience the same thing.
“There was something in me that wanted to come to America,” Frya said, shortly after giving a group presentation in class of his respective region in Iraq. “My friends that had done IYLEP told me about the city and the nice people and also the things they studied. All these things inspired me to apply for the program.”
Frya is one of 24 IYLEP students, along with 13 current VCU students, enrolled in the VCU Social Media Institute this summer. In the course, students help develop and implement social media campaigns for local nonprofits over a three-week period.
“Real, tangible results”
While students in the program learn how to create social media campaigns for nonprofits, the curriculum also provides opportunities to enhance leadership abilities by inviting special guest speakers to share their personal experiences and insights. Students also acquire real-life professional experience by working directly with clients.
The class is co-taught by Robertson School faculty members Marcus Messner, Ph.D., and Vivian Medina-Messner. Messner has taught the class since its inception in 2010, with Medina-Messner joining in 2012. The program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and administered through Meridian International Center.
This summer will be the last year the program is offered at VCU. Around 170 Iraqi students and 130 VCU students have completed the course since it began. In that time, social media campaigns were created for 66 area nonprofit organizations.
By the end of the current program, students will have developed social media campaigns for six nonprofits throughout the Richmond area. The clients this year: RVA MakerFest; Ten Thousand Villages; Big Brothers Big Sisters; Virginia Voice; VCU Langston Center for Quality, Safety and Innovation; and the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
“The students are working with live clients,” Medina-Messner said. “That’s a lot different than working with theoretical clients. It’s challenging because they have to customize the campaigns but at the same time they also have real, tangible results. That’s a huge benefit of a course like this.”
Nada Mohammed, an IYLEP student who is helping create a social media campaign for Big Brothers Big Sisters in Richmond, said working and brainstorming with her client has helped her team better streamline the goals being developed in the campaign.
“My nonprofit wanted to reach their followers on social media better, especially on Facebook and Twitter, to help raise awareness about what they do,” Mohammed said. “After we brainstormed with them, we gave them some ideas that would maybe help distinguish them.”
Noah Rabatin, a creative advertising sophomore, is working on the team leading the campaign for Ten Thousand Villages in Carytown. Rabatin shared how he’s enjoyed the experience of working with a real client and real deadlines, offering a nice break from more traditionally structured courses.
“A lot of my classes are really theoretical,” Rabatin said. “It’s nice, in a class like this, to have that face-to-face interaction with an actual client you are working for.”
The multitude of real-life learning, living and work experience gained while studying at VCU culminates at the end of the semester when students present their final IYLEP project — design and pitch a campaign concept that has the potential of being implemented once they are back in Iraq, Messner said.
Mohammed said she plans on using her IYLEP experience to help improve organizations that address people in need in her home city of Baghdad.
“If I can learn how to manage campaigns here, then I can take that back home and help build on the ideas I have for organizations that help orphans in Iraq,” Mohammed said.
An Exchange of Culture
Aside from learning how to leverage social media for nonprofits and strengthening leadership skills, Messner said he sees the course having a major cultural impact for the enrolled VCU students.
“Most of our VCU students only know Iraq from the news: car site bombs, attacks, terrorism and ISIS over the last couple of years,” Messner said. “That changes when we have these hip, young students from Iraq coming to Richmond who basically don’t want anything different from life than our VCU students. I think it’s a big eye-opener.”
Rabatin said one thing that struck him about the class was getting to see both the differences and similarities in perspective between VCU and IYLEP students.
“You learn that your perspective and the Iraqi students’ perspectives are different, but in a lot of ways they are also the same,” Rabatin said. “The culture and ideas are not as different as you might think.”
Outside of the classroom and client meetings, Messner and Medina-Messner organize an annual potluck dinner for the IYLEP and VCU students called “Dolma and Hotdogs.” The dinner is meant to serve as an informal and relaxed way for the professors and students to exchange different foods and customs from their cultures, Messner said.
“This is what makes IYLEP, IYLEP,” Medina-Messner said. “It’s not just the tasks and assignments in the class. It’s that human interaction. It’s important to exchange new cultures in multiple ways, like through food.”
A great experience
Both Medina-Messner and Messner said they feel lucky to have been a part of the program and witness the significant impact it had on both VCU and Richmond, and also for all the Iraqi students who have enrolled the last seven years.
“I never had a connection to the Middle East,” Messner said. “When it started, for me, it was a completely new and eye-opening experience. I had never been exposed to Iraqi students, or Iraqi culture.”
Both Messner and Medina-Messner said they will continue to use the skills they acquired while teaching in the IYLEP program and apply them to their other courses that focus specifically on social media.
“For us, it’s been a great learning experience,” Medina-Messner said. “Our goal is to provide our students with the social media skills that they can go make a difference with and, once they create their own projects, I feel like we’ve done our job.”