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Students build bridges, break down walls in international class

Nov 11, 2019

Posted in: News

By Taylor Burress, Communications Intern

Dr. Mariam Alakzemi visited the headquarters of Soliya in Tunisia this summer.

Students at the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture have a variety of classes to take this semester, including "International Media Coverage: The Middle East" taught by professor Mariam Alkazemi in partnership with Soliya's Connect Program.

The course explores the media's role in covering cultural, political, religious and other issues in the Middle East. The students learn in the classroom and also use webcams and online technology to connect with students in the Middle East to discuss cultural perspectives.

Soliya is an international nonprofit organization preparing the next generation “with the skills, attitudes, and commitment to engage with difference constructively," according to its website.

The course was made possible through a grant given to Soliya by the U.S. Department of State. This grant also covered the extra fee for students to participate.

Alkazemi explained that the Connect Program works by pairing students with a mentor. The mentors come from all over the world and are trained in a program certified by the United Nations with regard to conflict resolution. At the end of the program, the students also receive a certificate stating that they have participated.

The first week of the Connect Program started in early October. Students started by building common ground and now spend two to three hours a week doing activities or talking on the phone with their partners. The 13 students are put into groups and log on to a website where they can video chat with their partners.

Dr. Mariam Alakzemi with VCU students who participated in the partnership with Soliya's Connect Program.

Alkazemi receives weekly emails about the performance of her students, whether they participated or not and if they were late to their meetings. She is not allowed to know specifically what they say.

"It's like a safe space," Alkazemi said. "They are getting this experience of learning to talk with a facilitator that isn't me."

Evanthia Karageorge, a broadcast journalism major taking the course, spoke on the importance of interacting with students through the Soliya program.

"Not only do we find a middle ground with each other but we’re able to understand where we are coming from and also they’re able to learn things that are going on in the United States that maybe they didn’t fully understand and vice versa."

She said she is very happy that VCU and Alkazemi offered it this semester.

“There are no more excuses for being ignorant about a large part of the world that has such a huge impact,” Karageorge said. “This course builds bridges and breaks down walls.”

Alkazemi's current role in the process is to help the students if they're having any difficulty expressing their thoughts or experiences.

So far this semester Alkazemi has used various methods to teach students about different perspectives. She had the students watch movies about a variety of topics, such as one about Syrian refugees. They also write reports on the movies and readings they complete.

"We [have] talked about culture, about political science, about all these different aspects that impact our ability to communicate with people from different world regions, and also perceptions across culture," Alkazemi said.

Alkazemi has emphasized to the students in her course that they won't be experts on the Middle East at the end of the semester. There still will be many unanswered questions, she said.

"But hopefully, when you come out of this class, you'll be able to see a lot more nuance, and kind of just understand a little bit more about how to communicate with the region."

She also stressed the importance of learning how to navigate differences and how it doesn't just apply to the Middle East.

"We're supposed to be different, we're supposed to have conflict, but there's a difference between conflict that's good and conflict that can really be very destructive," she said. 

Alkazemi hopes to teach the course again and said she found the program rewarding.