Location: Damascus, Syria The table was set: fresh cherries, cashew-stuffed dates, home ground hummus, cold water. Students arrived, notebooks in hand and shirts pressed. The annual Iraqi Student Project Summer Conference had commenced. We had spent much of the previous two weeks organizing topics and speakers for the two-day affair, held in lieu of normal classes in order to cover major transitions that the students will encounter in just two months’ time upon arrival at their universities. Though not all of the students have been accepted yet (requests for tuition waivers allow the universities to hold off on decisions until long after American students have ceased to wait beside their mailboxes in anticipation of fat or thin letters), everyone attended. And though the name might suggest otherwise, the conference, like all things ISP, involved learning in both directions. Concepts introduced by teachers included:
- How the US education system works: what’s a GPA and how do you calculate it? What’s a semester? What are TAs? Shilpa, the speaker, encouraged students to seek out professors early on and introduce themselves. This came as quite a surprise to some: “We would never do that in Iraq, out of respect!” One of my favorite bits was a conversation about the ‘green movement’ (paper and plastic, not Iran) that has swept US college campuses; the stunned looks on the students’ faces when I explained that not composting is illegal in San Francisco, my hometown, were certainly amusing. The take-home point: don’t be offended if someone in the States asks you to separate your juice bottle from your bag of chips at the waste bin.
- The conference moved on to time management: the importance of being proactive, prioritizing, and preparing for arrival to the US during the month of Ramadan, when many of the students will be fasting until sunset. “Everything’s on a fast pace,” wrote one ISP graduate currently at school in the U.S. “It’s hard to manage your time here. Even a minute is precious.” Adil, a volunteer originally from Philadelphia, continued: “People in the States may have misconceptions about the Middle East and Arabs. If you don’t make time in your schedule for getting involved, but rather spend all of your time studying, you can’t help change their minds. If you budget your time and get involved in activities on campus, you may be able to help change their misconceptions.” The last several months have featured much discussion over this concept, specifically the fine line that ISP students will walk between, on the one hand, acting as ‘social ambassadors’ in the States, and on the other, retaining their right to privacy and to simply answer, “I don’t feel like talking about that” if sensitive questions arise.
- Gender relations: when asked for their stereotypes about gender relations in the States, the students eagerly shared. “Everything changes at age 18 when children leave the house…women can work menial jobs like gas attendants and waitresses…unmarried couples can live together…it’s okay to be roommates of different genders…gay people are treated well in the US…” Renessa, the moderator, tackled these one by one, explaining where truth could be found and where some were mistaken. The take-home point: the US is extremely diverse. When you get there, observe without judging, and then make your own choices about how you want to live your life.
Concepts introduced by students were certainly as numerous and important:
- How to answer hard or ignorant questions: ISP graduates currently studying in the States had shared some of the ‘toughest’ and ‘stupidest’ questions that had been tossed their way. Some deal with politics and the war: ‘How do you feel about Saddam’s regime?...How do you feel about the US military?...Is anyone in your family dead?’ while others concern life in Iraq: ‘Have you ever had ice cream?...Do you have trees in Iraq?...Do you drive cars?’ Several of the female students were left pondering the possible implications of an inevitable question from American males: ‘Do you want to hang out on Saturday?’ “How do you know if it’s a date or not?!” exclaimed one. “Not only international students face that dilemma,” laughed one of the teachers.
- Visa interviews: ‘tis the season for US Embassy appointments, and correspondingly, ISP mock interviews. One student, Tamara, turned the lyrics of a favorite song into advice for her friends: “If I love myself, the interviewer is gonna love me, and he’ll give me that visa!”
- The Iraq that many Americans do not know: I’ve been tutoring individually on computer skills essential to college life. One student, after learning how to navigate PowerPoint, completed the assignment of making and giving a 5 – 10 minute presentation by teaching me about social life in Baghdad. Photos of verdantly green parks, couples enjoying summer nights in bright cafés along the banks of the Tigris, and Baghdad residents’ favorite fish dishes complemented her stories of city life before the occupation. I thought back with a smile to a manual given to American soldiers during the First Gulf War that I read for a class at Brown last semester. Iraq is “hot, flat, and dry,” the ‘Short Guide to Iraq’ had summarized. After the students’ numerous tales of their favorite city spots, foods, and activities, I long for the day that safety allows visits to Baghdad.