As an educator, I believe that intercultural experiences have an important role to play in a world situation that is – to say the least – very confusing. This year, 2011, marks a decade since the tragic events of September 11. Today’s undergraduate college students were eight to twelve years old in 2001 and consequently have spent their intellectually formative years with post-9/11 media coverage, little of which addressed the need for intercultural understanding. I believe that we have the demanding opportunity to support this generation of students and future leaders to deeper understand the major challenges of cross-cultural conflicts and to develop the capabilities, commitment and grit to address them.
Personal experiences that are transformative are often the driving force behind the passions in our lives. I would love to share a glimpse of mine. I was born in communist East Germany and grew up next to the Berlin Wall. Sometimes my brother and I climbed trees to see boats going by on the river on the other side of the wall. We watched people having barbecue in their gardens but were never able to go there. I was 19 years old when the wall came tumbling down. At that time and in the following years, I experienced drastically in my own story the reality of the Anais Nin’s statement: “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.”
When traveling the world, I realized with amazement how much my images of history, countries and current affairs have been shaped by the context I had lived in. Intercultural experiences became one of the key teachers for my personal development and for learning about other cultures and people. My fascination grew about the process of what happens to our perception and awareness when we enter another culture with appreciation and open senses. I sensed that the world can look entirely different from a different cultural perspective when I am engaging openly in deep dialogue with people of other cultures. And I realized in these conversations that I am learning as much about the “Other” as I am learning about myself.
In the following years, I became passionate about intercultural immersion experiences and backpacked on tiny budgets across the world – often choosing solo trips in order to intensify the intercultural impact. These personal travel experiences became the vibrant background for my passion to create cross-cultural immersion programs, activities and films, which encourage, support and challenge university students to cross borders internally and externally. I would love to share a few of my observations on these activities:
Student Experiences on the Morocco Exchange programs of our organization triggered often very different responses of American students when they stayed at Moroccan family homes and interacted personally with Moroccan students. American students from a more liberal background were often surprised about the positive experiences they had. Some of them identified themselves as being very literate with critical thinking skills and were then surprised finding out how much they had been affected by images of Muslims in the US media.
Conservative students who traveled with us often had to process the shock of experiencing openness, hospitality and warmth in Morocco in sharp contrast to the hostile view their entire families held of the region. I remember a student sharing with me: “My parents and grandparents are not talking to me at the moment. They are evangelical Christians and are deeply upset with me that I am visiting a Muslim country.” After a while she added with a quiet voice: “They consider this religion as evil.”
Over the past years I saw in my own story and in the story of students that experiences themselves are the best teacher to confront existing preconceptions. It is a defining and creative moment when students encounter for themselves something that is in contrast to their accustomed perception, because it empowers them to discover themselves first hand and enhances critical thinking skills. It is powerful to experience hospitality in a Muslim country and then to reflect on: How come we hear so much about the reality of terrorism while hearing very little about the reality and beauty of the other culture? How come we saw post 9/11 on US media images of a small group of 10-20 Muslims celebrating, creating an image as if the entire Muslim world was celebrating? How come we saw these images repeated over and over again? How come we did not see 60,000 Iranians holding a Peace Vigil for the victims of 9/11? How come we did not see the images of over 1 million Moroccans demonstrating against the use of violence in the name of their faith after the bombing in Casablanca in which no American was hurt?
These are moments in which I have a lot of compassion with my students. I remember how much inner work it was after the Communist system imploded to come to terms with my entire education being incomplete or a distorted image. To change such perception does not happen in one conversation it needs eye opening experiences and time to reflect and process.
What I truly love about American students is the quality to get emotionally involved and care about issues and people. I noticed that most students who traveled with us knew very little about the region. I also experienced that the majority really cared from the moment they connected to a person or an issue on a personal level. It is a quality I deeply appreciate in the American culture.
The Educators Role: My experience is that most of the time we do not need to tell students what to think or do. We only need to encourage and support them to step into experiences that are challenging and widening. I experienced many times that the goodness within students takes over and makes them choose their next chapters of learning themselves by going into volunteer work, study abroad or long term services such as the Peace Corps. I experienced that students can discover their passion and task in this world where they are connected to their own power. So I would like to close with a quote that I love sharing with students when they ask “So what can I do?”, a quote which became key to my personal process of growing ideas and visions into creative realities.
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs.
Ask yourself what makes you come alive
and then go and do that.
Because what the world needs
is people who have come alive.”
H. T. Whitman