Students Become Neighbors Time Zones Apart

WASHINGTON - Relatively few students in the U.S. have opportunities to study abroad, says Mohamed Abdel-Kader, executive director of the Stevens Initiative, a public-private partnership based at the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C.

Some estimates right now have pegged about one in 10 American college students is having the opportunity to go abroad, and we'd certainly like to see those numbers a little bit higher, he told VOA's Student Union at the Association of American Colleges and Universities conference in Washington recently.

That proportion is even lower for American students going to the Middle East and vice versa, he said.

What's really interesting to think about is about 2% of American college students who do study abroad, of that 10%, about 2% actually go to the Middle East and North Africa. And on the flip side, some estimates are that about 2% of young people in the Middle East and North Africa study abroad," Abdel-Kader said. "And I think we want more young people to interact with one another and learn about one another."

The goal of the Stevens Initiative is to connect students around the globe, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.

And the Initiative has come up with a creative solution to help achieve that goal: a virtual exchange program.

Virtual exchange is when two classrooms in different geographies essentially take out a wall between them -- that wall is obviously thousands and thousands of miles -- but that wall is really taken out between them by the use of technology, so that these young people in both classrooms are learning about one another, and they're learning together, Abdel-Kader said.

This is integrated into their classroom and moderated by their teachers, so that it's a dynamic learning experience where they're being exposed to different global issues, and they're collaborating with one another to try to solve them, and find out where their shared interests are, and where there may be differences to hopefully gain a better understanding of that issue from the different perspectives, and understand one another I think a little bit better as well," he said.

Abdel-Kader said the program is succeeding in a number of ways.

One, we see that students first of all get to know one another and learn a lot about their peers in other classrooms across the world. Folks abroad learn more about Americans and everyday life in our 50 states," he said.

Students participating in virtual exchanges are more technologically literate, too, Abdel-Kader said.

They're able to navigate technological tools with greater ease and collaborate with peers across borders, they're able to communicate across those same borders with much more ease. And those experiences are happening in classrooms around the world, and we're very excited to be a part of that to help grow these experiences, and bring more educators into the fold," he said.

Chicago native Samuel Owusu's curiosity about other languages and cultures inspired him to participate in a virtual exchange program to work on a joint project with students in Casablanca (Morocco) during his senior year at high school, Abdel-Kader said.

Owusu told the Stevens Initiative that he attributes a lot of his interest in the Middle East and North Africa to the weekly exchanges he was able to have with those students.

We became friends. I understood that although they are a world away, they are our neighbors," Owusu said on the Initiative's website. "This changed my trajectory in college and in life."

Abdel-Kader said, "We've also seen that many students who participated in virtual exchanges are more prepared for the 21st-century workforce and that they're able to navigate time zones, they're able to navigate language barriers, and they're able to see complex global issues from a number of different perspectives. And that is certainly very helpful in the 21st-century workplace.

That virtual exchange experience motivated Owusu, currently a junior at Davidson College in North Carolina, to travel to Lebanon recently for a study abroad program, Abdel-Kader said.

So we're very excited to see that kind of impact and transformational experience that could start from a classroom at home and turn into a fantastic experience abroad that is just eye opening and transformational for a young person," he added.

According to him and his testimonial, the experience really opened his eyes to life in Casablanca, he made friends, he was able to learn about them and communicate with them, but then also share about his life in Chicago," he said.

By the end of the year, the Stevens initiative will have reached about 40,000 young people in about 45 U.S. states and 15 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, reaching students who may not have had an opportunity to go abroad, Abdel-Kader said.

"And we're just very proud to see these young people connecting and building a future together," he said.

The Stevens Initiative was inspired by the late U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, a diplomat who got to know young people everywhere he went, Abdel-Kader explained. He was lost in the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Libya, and there was a desire to honor him.

The Stevens Initiative works in close partnership with Ambassador Stevens' family. It is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, the Bezos Family Foundation and the governments of the United Arab Emirates and Morocco.

Source: Voice of America