Building Cultural Bridges

Screenshot of video

A screenshot from the video produced last year by UNC junior Adriane Zachary for the Soliya Connect Program. The national program, offered in a UNC LIfe of Mind class, brings together students from the United States and Middle East for open discussions during online videoconferences.

UNC student Adriane Zachary once viewed the Middle East through the limited and at times harsh U.S. lens of what followed 9/11.

That was before the junior took a UNC class as part of a national project that brings together college students from the United States and Middle East, among others, through a series of online videoconferences. UNC is one of a select group of colleges and universities, and the only one in the state, participating.

"It has really challenged my world view," said Zachary, who's majoring in Audiology and Speech-Language Sciences and was nominated to moderate this year's session after participating last year. "Isn't that why you go to college, to challenge what you think?"

Her past two years with Soliya's Connect Program, headquartered in New York and offered through UNC's Life of Mind program, have taught her that American students have much in common with their Middle Eastern peers.

"We're more alike than we are different," Zachary said. "We all have compassion."

Added first-time participant Ryan Felton, a senior Geography major: "We're all college kids trying to get our education. They're just like us in that they want to live in peace."

Students from U.S. schools and abroad are divided into small groups and use webcams during the semester to link up. Facilitators, like Zachary, guide the discussion with scripted topics. Students are free to stray from the script and often veer from what's presented. Zachary recalls that her group skimped on the planned immigration discussion to address homeland and international media portrayal of Arabs and Americans.

Talk can turn to customs, religion, military conflict, laws and their pre-conceived notions - for example, reality television is not an accurate portrayal of real Americans, as Zachary and others have reminded their new friends when asked. Felton was asked during a session this semester what the cup from which he was drinking contained - technology allows the students to log-in from home using a webcam and Internet connection. When told it was water, the international students seemed surprised it wasn't alcohol, Felton said.

UNC students are required to produce videos of the experience, write reflective essays, make classroom and public presentations about their work and participate in regular, and often, very early videoconferences. Zachary says that she must log on at 5 a.m. ("I'd do it at 4 a.m.," she says) for each scheduled session.

"The class makes me want to go over there and see their culture," Felton added.

Of Note
UNC's Soliya students will be part of a statewide conference on distance learning in Vail. They are scheduled to talk about their experiences on Thursday, April 16, at the eLearning Consortium of Colorado event.

More about UNC's Soliya Connect Program
The Soliya Connect Program is part of the Life of Mind 292 class. The elective is open to all students through UNC's Center for Honors, Scholars and Leadership. "The Center for Honors, Scholars and Leadership is developing a cross-campus civic engagement initiative that offers international as well as place-based engaged learning opportunities to UNC students," says Michael Kimball, HSL director and the instructor of Mind 292. "The Soliya Connect Program illustrates this initiative's aspirations because it actually connects the local (the personal experience of UNC students) with the global (US-Middle East relations)." For more information about Life of Mind, visit http://www.unco.edu/hsl/mind.

- Nate Haas