From left, students Tony Kecman Jr. and Alessandra Spencer-Pereira talk about Middle Eastern history with Professor Jo-Anne Hart.
Learning about the Middle East from textbooks and the news can only get you so far.
This spring, Professor Jo-Anne Hart wanted to give her Modern Middle Eastern History students an additional layer of insight by connecting them with peers from that complex region.
For 2 ½ hours a week, Hart’s students spoke with people living in predominantly Muslim countries, such as Yemen, Morocco, Turkey and Egypt, through an online video chat platform created by Soliya. The educational nonprofit organizes small groups of students from around the globe to discuss a range of topics with a focus on current events. Facilitators created a space for healthy dialog and guided the topics for each week, which Hart used to correspond to her coursework.
This semester was Hart’s first experience incorporating the platform into her curriculum, and she found it was valuable for her students — helping them to communicate and collaborate with people of different cultures and religions on important issues, including discrimination, immigration, culture and identity and gender.
“The direct dialog makes the Middle East a real place, full of their peers,” Hart said. “I think it gives the class more relevance.”
Discovering common experiences
The students themselves were surprised at how the weekly conversations both informed and supplemented their classes and vice versa.
“The classes really do set the tone for Soliya itself,” said James Kerr, a junior counseling major. He and the other students found that, once they developed a rapport with their peers abroad, they were able to talk about real issues, such as the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, issues of gender and sexuality, and racism.
“We have more commonalities with them than would have been expected going in,” Kerr said.
Junior Alessandra Spencer-Pereira agreed.
One week, when the sole male member of her group was absent, the virtual gathering shifted to a discussion on feminism, patriarchy and having children and a career.
“Everyone really opened up more with each other. The Middle Eastern women had the same opinions as the American girls,” said Spencer-Pereira, a psychology major and neuroscience minor. Her group, which had three Americans, an Italian, two Turks and an Egyptian, bonded over their shared ideas.
“Even though the Middle East is far away, it’s not that far away. They were not that much different,” she said.
There were, of course, some disagreements.
Tony Kecman Jr.’s group included an outspoken and, at times, insensitive Moroccan man. When he made a racist comment about an Asian-American woman in the group, the rest of the members quickly responded.
“It didn’t sit well,” said Kecman, a junior European world history major and communications minor.
The man went on to play devil’s advocate on issues of politics. The conversations, though challenging, helped Kecman understand more about political conflicts in the region and the variety of views represented there, he said.
For Professor Hart, this is one of the goals of the experience.
“At Lesley we strive to help our students learn how to disagree to opposing views with respect and empathy,” she said. “This eight-week long exchange gave every student the chance to do that in reality, not in abstraction.”
Gaining empathy and perspective
Beyond the weightier geopolitical topics, the students shared aspects of their personal lives as well. When a dog barked during one video session, everyone in the group wanted to see it. The pet also launched a discussion of whether or not Islam permits dogs to be kept as pets, with two of the Muslim members of the group expressing opposing viewpoints on their beliefs.
“The things that seem really minor, still make an important point,” said Hart. “I had already lectured on the diversity of the Islamic world, but the students heard it play out when a dog came up in the Middle East dialog.”
These more personal discussions helped the group members to speak freely. Some also began to connect outside of the scheduled discussions.
Kecman plays video games online with some his group members, and Kerr often speaks with a woman in war-torn Yemen.
The student told Kerr, “I don’t know if I’m going to wake up tomorrow.”
“She could just not be there,” said Kerr. “That’s scary. This woman is the best, nicest, kindest, giving person.”
Kerr said he’s grateful for the class and the new perspective he’s gained from it.
“I’m going to miss this class,” he said. “It was a really good experience.”
The class and conversation groups also impacted Kecman and Spencer-Pereira, so much so that they both applied to be facilitators with Soliya next semester.
After her class’s experience with Soliya, Hart said she would love to see this program used in other courses.