CSUMB students join in global dialogue

Briana Cagle was one of the lucky ones.

Unlike some of her classmates, Cagle didn’t have to get up at 4 a.m. to find her laptop and log on to join a conversation with seven students from the Middle East, Europe and the U.S. Her sessions started at the relatively late hour of 8:30.

Briana CagleUsing video conferencing technology and the resources of the nonprofit organization Soliya, the junior Global Studies major talked with other university students about issues that sometimes divide the West from the Arab and Muslim world.

The weekly two-hour sessions throughout the fall 2012 semester covered a wide variety of “touchy” topics, Cagle said. “It turned out to be a safe place to talk about difficult issues.

“Talking about women’s rights in the Middle East compared to the West was a topic that interested me,” Cagle said. “And focusing on 9/11 and the true motive of this event. It was amazing to hear what people from Egypt and Pakistan had to say.”

Cagle was one of 14 students in Dr. Naseem Badiey’s class, Global Studies 349: The West/Arab/Muslim World, who participated in Soliya’s Connect Program, the third time it has been offered at CSU Monterey Bay.

The weekly online video chats typically involved eight studentsDr. Badiey’s class examined the history and contemporary politics of the Middle East/Arab/Islamic world and relations with the West. Most students signed up for the class in part because they knew they could participate in the Soliya program.

Keith Williams, a junior Global Studies major, was drawn to the class because of the experience of a friend who lives in Cairo. “She loves it. Her experience with Arabs is a stark difference from the depictions of Arabs by the U.S. media,” he said.

Williams said most of his group’s discussions centered on geopolitical issues; the topic that resonated with him the most was Israel.

“When we decided to talk about Israel, I was thinking about the displaced Palestinians,” Williams said. “Our Arab participants were thinking about the fear of Israeli invasion and military force.”

Other students said their conversations included issues that provoked strong feelings. Some weeks the topic was American foreign policy. The presidential election came in for much comment.

Discussions were civil, because “everyone was extremely open-minded. There were some disagreements . . . but everyone seemed to respect the opposing view and tried to understand it instead of arguing with the person,” Cagle said. “It was a great space to be open and honest.”

Soliya was founded in 2003. The name comes from sol, the Latin word for sun, and iyaa’, Arabic for beam of light. It works to bridge cultural divides by helping students increase their knowledge of other countries and cultures and by motivating them to examine their own assumptions and question their own beliefs.

Soliya’s Connect Program, according to its website, helps students develop 21st century skills such as critical thinking, cross-cultural communication and media literacy. Since it started, it has linked students from more than 100 universities in 27 countries in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, Europe and North America. Soliya trains facilitators, who are recruited from former student participants, to moderate the discussions.

In addition to the weekly video session, Dr. Badiey’s class met for two hours to talk among themselves about what they had discussed during their video chats. At one of the Monday afternoon meetings, Thomas Hughes related how one member of his group from Egypt talked about how, at his university, tuition had been raised. That led to protests – and was a topic the CSUMB students could relate to.

Each semester concludes with a hands-on media project in which students use stock news footage and simple video-editing software to produce short news segments. The video project teaches practical media production and media literacy skills, while encouraging students to consider the impact of media bias on cross-cultural relations.

Now that the class is over, Cagle said she has a different frame of reference for how she looks at people from the Middle East.

“Talking with people in the Middle East has opened up my mind to levels unimaginable,” she said. “It’s so cool to say that I have friends in Egypt and Pakistan, real friends I could actually visit and have been encouraged to.

“I see them as people instead of someone so different.”

Williams has a different take on the experience.

“My fellow participants in Soliya turned out exactly as I expected,” he said. “Take my friend from Pakistan, for example. He wakes up, goes to class, studies at the library, grabs a bite to eat, does some homework, goes to work, watches TV, goes to sleep and starts over in the morning.

“Sounds a lot like our lives, don’t you think?,” Williams asked.

He added, “I talked to real people who lived real lives just like mine. I’ve never felt more connected to mankind and I can’t wait to travel to the countries of my new friends.”

Learn more about Soliya.

Learn about the Global Studies program at CSUMB.