Group photo taken at Zayed University in Dubai.

Bridging cultures

Students from UD, Dubai gain new understanding through novel cultural exchange

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1:15 p.m., May 31, 2012--For some University of Delaware students, the realization of traveling far “outside-the-box” may have occurred as they clambered up to a stone watchtower overlooking the craggy rock hills of a desert town called Hatta, far from the skyscrapers of Dubai. The tower once prevented marauders from attacking more populated areas of the region.

For others, it may have been listening to one of their Emirati student hosts describe her pearl-diving uncle, who made his family’s fortune with near-death dives for valuable gems off the coast of the Dubai Emirate.

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For still others, like Thien-Chan Vu and Erin Quinn of UD's Class of 2013, it might have been the moment they covered their western clothes with black abayas and headscarves called shaylas, required while visiting the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

“We felt as if we were really a part of the culture,” says Quinn. “It gave me a new perspective on the girls’ choice to wear it because I was able to appreciate their dedication to their religion and culture.”

Vu put it this way, in a poem she blogged after the experience at the mosque:

"truth be told, we envy your grace in the abayas and shaylas

truth be told, we quickly immerse -- awash in a transformation

not disingenuously asking questions

intrigued by this new-found identity

still foreigners in an alien costume,

but content with sharing this bit of your life.

assimilation."

Visiting United Arab Emirates

Vu, Quinn and 11 other UD students had already met their Emirati hosts, electronically. Their Honors Program class held weekly videoconferences with a similar class at Zayed University in Dubai all semester. Then, instead of seeking a warm beach over spring break, 10 of the Honors students continued their learning experience by traveling to the United Arab Emirates to meet their Emirati peers as cultural, social, historical, political and religious guides.

“When I was struggling to put on my headscarf while we visited the most beautiful mosque I have ever seen,” says senior Rose Summers, “another Emirati student came over and taught me exactly how she puts hers on… Standing almost literally in her shoes, fully dressed in the long black coat and headscarf felt surreal.”

“As an American student, I’ve noticed how little my peers and I are taught in high school and college about the Middle East and how this ignorance quickly leads to misunderstanding and misjudgment,” says 2012 graduate Sophie Latapie. “The University of Delaware, through the Global Agenda class, is able to work to break down these cultural barriers and spark an interest in students about this part of the world which so desperately requires the attention and open minds of young people.”

Eric Wall, another graduating senior, describes the experience this way: “I thought of Arab females as subdued and oppressed, confined to the black garb that their societies require them to wear. The opening moments of our first teleconference seemed to solidify this perception. I saw a room of quiet young women, impossible to distinguish as they were wearing what appeared to be the same draping black outfit… I knew that I had much to learn from these Emirati students, and spring break travel to Dubai provided an excellent opportunity to do so… Over the course of long bus rides and late night dinners… I had a chance to understand what it was like being a young Emirati. On the surface level we could bond on similar music tastes, similar movie interests, and all of the other pop culture items that I did not associate with the Middle East.” 

But Wall discovered that “upon deeper discussion, I learned of taboo subjects like flirting, dating, homosexuality and the cultural acceptance of polygamy.”

Observations

The UD students packed a lot into their weeklong stay in the Arab country, visiting the world’s tallest building and an unusual environmental institute dedicated to generating its own electricity and proving technologies that could replace the oil economies of the world, which today buy energy from the UAE itself. The students saw firsthand what it means to live in an oil sheikdom, where American-style democracy is respected, but not coveted.

They observed how Emiratis, a tiny minority in their own country, maintain political control when most of their workforce comes from Asia or elsewhere. 

“I loved seeing all different types of people walking down the street," says Summers, “but I cannot wrap my head around the idea that these people are essentially inferior residents, and everyone is OK with it.”

The students stayed up late discussing everything from global politics to dating, family life and religion, with Emirati women who are forbidden even to be seen publicly with a man who is not their husband or a relative. 

“I had not realized how important being globally minded was to me,” says junior Brittany Drazich. “From this experience I have realized that I find deep satisfaction from learning about those who are drastically different from me.”

The students discovered in person how a television “news” channel, Al Arabiya, makes editorial judgments when its financial sponsors are beholden to Saudi Arabia, where women are forbidden to drive. And they learned that photos of their travels could not be shared on the popular social media site Flickr, because the site is banned by the UAE government.

Emirati students visit America

The Global Agenda program includes a return visit to UD by the Emirati students, during which the students share joint field trips to the White House, the United Nations and the 9/11 memorial in New York. A visit to Longwood Gardens is an unexpected treat for the women from Zayed University, since their desert homeland is largely devoid of greenery and flowers. 

At UD, says Summers, “I loved being able to sit with [the Emirati students] in a real classroom and see how they would react to my coursework and my professor. One of the students actually messaged me on Facebook when the week was done to ask me to send her the course’s reading list because she was so interested in the material. It was truly exciting to share things that are important to me.”

Junior Kelia Scott and her roommates hosted the entire transnational class for dinner at her UD campus home. “This class was probably the most memorable classroom experience I have ever had…  I not only got to know Professor Begleiter quite well, but I also interacted a lot more with the students in my class. It was a treat to get to talk to a professor one on one and share ideas rather than just exchange emails… I am still connected with the girls, and I think that is another valuable thing I take away from this class. I have connections in Dubai that I hope will continue throughout my life.”

Course videoconferences explored topics from Arab-Israeli politics and Arab-American relations to the Arab Spring events of the past year and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The role of religion in both the U.S. and UAE was a frequent topic of discussion. Students teamed-up across nine time zones and their cultural divide to jointly research and prepare a major project combining a paper and a multimedia presentation. Many used social media to exchange ideas about their assignment, while continuing discussions begun in class.

“I learned more about Middle Eastern and Muslim culture during my week in Dubai than I have ever learned in my life, despite having taken courses on the subject in the past,” says junior Lindsay Romano. “The Honors section of Global Agenda strives to influence students to step outside of their comfort zone and to learn about another culture through the perspectives of natives to that culture… I had time to reflect on myself and my own biases, biases that have become so engrained.”

Drazich, a UD nursing student, says the Global Agenda class broadened her undergraduate experience. “This is the type of class you want to shout on rooftops about… It exemplifies the University of Delaware’s global perspective, and unique classes… It is not like I ever distrusted or disrespected Middle Easterners, but I definitely felt a barrier between myself and them. But after this experience, that barrier has crumbled. I now want to embrace them as people, as individuals.”

About the program

The Dubai-Delaware Honors program was supported by the College of Arts and Sciences, the Honors Program, the Office of Service Learning, the Department of Communication, the UD Alumni Association and the Institute for Global Studies.

This is the third year UD and Emirati students have exchanged visits in addition to conducting their videoconferences. At UD, the course is taught by Ralph Begleiter, director of the Center for Political Communication. At Zayed University in Dubai, it was taught this year by Prof. Sara Chehab, who earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in UD’s Department of Political Science and International Relations.

“Programs like this one offer adventurous students a productive way to spend their spring break on a great learning experience that doesn’t interfere with their other classes,” Begleiter said. “Bridging cultures to the Middle East is vital in the post-9/11 era. I don’t mind saying I wish funds were available to enable more students, across the UD academic landscape, to take courses like this one.”

To see more photos of the exchange program and read more of Thien-Chan Vu’s poem, along with other reflections of students in the class, visit http://bit.ly/KaBtD4.

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