Twenty-two students from the Middle East and North Africa took part in UD's Student Leaders Program of the State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI).

Leadership development

Students from Middle East, North Africa gain leadership skills at UD

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9:04 a.m., Aug. 28, 2012--“I want to empower women by creating an NGO [non-governmental organization] that would give opportunities to women who depend on their husbands for financial help to make homemade things and sell them in order to become more independent,” says Rihame Al Haiane from Morocco.

She is one of 22 students from the Middle East and North Africa region who recently completed a six-week leadership program at the University of Delaware that will have far-reaching impacts, as the students put what they’ve learned into action in their communities back home. 

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Funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) brought more than 100 highly accomplished students to selected U.S. universities this summer for its Student Leaders Program.

UD, through the Institute for Global Studies (IGS), has been a recipient of the MEPI grant every year since the program’s inception in 2004.

Prof. Lesa Griffiths, who serves as the program’s principal investigator and senior mentor at UD, credits the program’s success to its thematic approaches and its linking of theory to practice. 

“This multi-disciplinary, integrated classroom approach, coupled with volunteer experiences, has proven effective,” Griffiths said. “Aspects of each theme also are reinforced by a study tour that takes students to cultural centers across the U.S.”

Four broad themes are presented by UD experts in political science, communication, philosophy and business and economics, including “American Norms and Civic Engagement,” “National Culture Formation and Transmission,” “Institutions,” and “Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Prosperity.” 

This year, the students participated in two dozen seminars covering American government and elections, public opinion, philosophy, religion, sports, the market system and entrepreneurship. 

“The seminars introduce students to some of the dimensions of the diverse social and political culture of the United States, as well as other topics that relate to the primary objectives of the MEPI program, including pluralism and participation,” notes James Magee, professor of political science, who serves as the program’s academic director. 

Firsthand experiences in civics also inspire the students to develop their own ideas. Through a visit to Kingswood Community Center in Wilmington, UD’s MEPI students saw how individuals reach out to those in need. The children enrolled in summer camp were enchanted to interact with students from different parts of the world and vice versa.

Leadership Program 

In Audrey Helfman’s class “Developing a Civic Vision,” peer mentor and MEPI 2010 alumna Duaa Almeshqab from Bahrain showed a Powerpoint highlighting posters made by previous MEPI participants. The current students then began developing ideas for their own posters on how to engage in civic activities in their homelands. 

“My role is to help guide them to understand themselves as potential leaders, learn leadership skills and be able to go back to their home countries to further engage in their community and grow as leaders,” says Helfman, associate professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration and the program’s leadership director since 2004.

“We follow them on their project, to mentor them and continue to push them to work in their communities and see themselves as active participants in their societies. Later, we encourage them to partner with an existing NGO so as to develop coalitions,” she remarks.

Turning vision into reality

The students had different opinions on how to engage in civic duties when they return home and spoke candidly about turning their vision into reality. 

Rihame Al Haiane, the student from Morocco initially studying economics and management, has changed her major to education.  

“I will be teaching this September at a primary school. We need to see many changes in Morocco, but it will not come quickly,” she explains. “I am more interested in the situation of women. Many girls do not attend school in Morocco, and I would like to see this change.”

She adds, “This is my first time in the United States. It is a lifetime experience, and I have learned so many things. It has been totally exciting.” 

Muhammad Hamed, a Palestinian student living in Nazareth, Israel, who is studying medicine, has already started an NGO called the Mariam Foundation, which helps Arab women stricken with cancer to become more outspoken about the disease.

“Many women are shy when it comes to speaking about breast cancer and so with having workshops and events, many breast cancer survivors publicly talk about their ordeal, and this helps other women in the community to deal with this disease,” he says.

Civic engagement 

On their last day at UD, the students presented their posters in Pearson Hall, where they were recorded. In February 2013, when the students and program leaders reunite at a location in the Middle East or North Africa, the students will see how far they’ve come in implementing their ideas. They also will learn how to write a proposal to apply for a grant from the U.S. State Department.

“We have a robust alumni network consisting of students from all past programs from various host institutions. These students have remained involved with the University through civic engagement projects in their home communities, pursuing MEPI small grants funding through our office and finding creative ways to express their leadership abilities,” explains Jonathan Keyser of IGS, who has been involved in the organization and logistics of the program since 2010.  

Other mentors who helped facilitate the program this year were Ryan McCabe, Rachel Garcia, Dustin Parrett, Caitlin Woglom and Max Kramer.

Other highlights

UD President Patrick Harker and his wife Emily hosted a dinner for the students in their home, and the students met the mayor of Newark, Vance Funk. 

The students also went on a study tour that helped expand their cultural understanding of America. It included a trip to Philadelphia, with a tour of Independence Hall; the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and a visit to the Rocky Mountains; Boston and Cambridge, and a tour of Harvard and its Center for Middle Eastern Studies; and the Big Apple, where students visited the United Nations.

To learn more, visit the MEPI program website

Article by Fariba Amini

Photos by Fariba Amini and Evan Krape

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