Last month, we issued a call for your stories about international education. This week, we are featuring some of the best on the NAFSA blog. You can read all of the stories on the Share Your Story page on www.ConnectingOurWorld.org
Bonnie Bissonette is the Associate Dean of Business and International Education at Northcentral Technical College in Wausau, Wisconsin. This is Bonnie's story:
I am an international educator and the following e-mail, from a student participant in the Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and administered by Georgetown University's Center for International Education and Development, eloquently expresses why international education will be the key to any peace we can attain in the world.
Dear Ms. Bonnie:
I'm sorry for writing this e-mail a little bit late! But it actually needed a while for my thoughts and ideas to settle down! I have lots of stuff to say, so bear with me till the end please if possible! This is based on my own experience in the USA, a very great experience! perhaps other people didn't have the same review, and perhaps my experience doesn't really apply on the entire 300 millions Americans, or the entire 50 states! After all, putting a single classification, whether good or bad, on an entire community is simply an act of stupidity, and the recent Ground Zero Mosque debates in America are such a proof of such diversity!
I'm writing this e-mail to present my deep gratitude and appreciation for anyone who provided any sort of help or assistance in the life changing experience of the MEPI student leader program! it has been such a great opportunity to explore this great nation. I honestly came to the States to explore what makes this nation what it is! Simply what makes America great!! I came with an inquiring mind of how this society and community really works and functions to make America what it actually is! For five weeks, and day by day, I got to shape a clearer image of America's different aspects of politics, culture, history and society! I admit that I had such a distorted image about America and the Americans! In addition to a badly represented televised image!! Which actually made me extremely curious on finding out more about what makes America America! despite all these bad images drawn in my mind! Something wasn't right! and so came this opportunity to get glimpses of a wide range and different walks of the American life.
I was amazed at the tall buildings and beautiful streets, but I was really touched by the great people! Which was (I have no idea why!) unexpected! I described it to my friends and relatives here with the sentence, a person there is quite well valued and respected! Which includes many aspects into it!
For five weeks, and day by day, I was a student and a teacher! I was a program participant and an ambassador! I got to study the different aspects of the American life! And I also got to educate lots and lots of people about my own culture, politics, history and society! I'm proudly a Muslim, Arab, and a Palestinian! A combination equivalent to terrorism as I expected ordinary average Americans would stereotype about myself! But again I was wrong! With little talks in the supermarket, on the plane or on the street! I have always eagerly waited the time when I get to introduce myself, I wanted to see the reaction on the faces! and the changes in the body language!! But the people were very interested in finding out more about where I come from, and how it's like over there! Sure many people didn't know what Palestine was! Someone didn't actually know what I meant by the middle east! but people always wanted to know more.
I will never forget a kid I met at the boys and girls club in Wausau Wisconsin, I taught him how to play ping pong and played along with another friend for a while, at the end he asked me where were I from, I said Palestine and expected to do some explanation about it! Beginning with "no no, it's not Pakistan, It's Palestine, Palestine…"!! I started explaining about what is Palestine and where it's located! But I could see clearly that the boy was kinda lost! he's an 8 year old after all!! So I said you know what buddy, I'm sure you're quite good at googling, I want you to promise me to google it, and tell your friends about it! later that day he saw me and told me you know what, I'm gonna pinkie promise you that I will google it… It felt really good! even if the boy didn't really look it up, at least he now knows about a country called Palestine over there in that big world!! And he met a Palestinian who taught him some ping pong!! Perhaps when he plays again he will remember me! and he will remember Palestine!!
This simple social interaction is one of the most fascinating parts of this experience! this basic human interaction! Between two different ethnicities and two different cultures! Away of any stereotypes or prejudgements!
Adding on the human interaction thought. I knew quite little about Algeria or Oman! I knew some things about Kurdistan, Iraq! but I have never met a Kurdish or deeply discussed their issues!! I have always been very interested in meeting a Bahraini! I really wanted to discuss some social and political issues with an Egyptian! This program taught me a lot about the USA! but it has also taught me VERY much about Algeria, Oman and Bahrain! It taught me a lot about each and every Arab country participating in this program! I now have best friends from all over 18 different countries in the Arab world! Friends that I could truly rely on! After all what we have lived through of ups and downs for 5 weeks, lived as a family, and shared as brothers and sisters.
It was really great seeing many organizations and projects in action! With each project, each and every time, I would imagine how we could realize such ideas into my own community! I came back loaded with ideas and proposals of projects we could start here! And I deeply appreciate the principle of "The Power of One;" to just be the change you want to see on your community! And work on spreading it around! I believe that now I'm better equipped to actually be able to make a change! And I have always been welling to do it. The leadership classes provided the great foundation on how to start a project and how to handle it, how to realize the vision, and how to take the actions.
At the end of the program we were asked to answer a few questions for the department of state, mainly about how to bridge the gap between America and the Arab world. I believe that this program is such a huge indicator of how both sides are extremely willing on getting to know the other! They just want the opportunity! On the level of people and societies, I believe that both Americans and Arabs are willing to make the change, despite the politics though, which mainly caused and still causing the lack of trust between us! The Arabs as people are quite interested in getting to know America and what makes it great! And I experienced myself how the Americans as people are quite eager on finding out more about us! Despite how different we are, we have lots of stuff to share! And by getting to know each other more and establishing such understanding and respect to each other and each other's values, with the examples of such programs and other bidirectional academical and extracurricular exchange programs, having delegations of each side to the other's, and with proper utilization of media resources, I believe the gap will eventually be bridged enough! Up to a limit mainly controlled by higher general politics in the area! Unfortunately!
Establishing a good understanding of our cultural differences is the key solution to lots of the currently faced problems, understanding of both views! As I have been enlightened about many things in America, and many misconceptions were changed, I believe the Americans would have an even much more enlightening experience in the middle east, with even much more misconceptions to change! And so, I believe that the bidirectional exchange programs are of a great importance to achieve the higher goal of gaps bridging.
Thank you very much for this opportunity, the memories and expertise gained of the program will be ever lasting! This experience changed the way I viewed lots of stuff! And now I believe that I'm willing more than ever to continue the pursuit of change I want to see in my community! Equipped with tons of new ideas and change areas, and with better means to accomplish it.
I will be very glad to participate and help out at any future programs of yours if help is needed, and I will be very glad if we stayed in touch…