By Salman Ahmed Rasul
Nine AUIS students participated in Iraqi Yong Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP) this June for six weeks. Before I start talking about our time in the program, let me give you the basics. IYLEP is a leadership, educational, and cultural program funded by the US Embassy in Baghdad. There are two IYLEP institutes administrated by FHI 360: Social Media and Public Policy. There are two others implemented by World Learning: Environment and Social Awareness and Public Health and Community Development.There is also IYLEP for high school students, which is also administrated by World Learning.
Now let’s get a little deeper. Randi Barznji and I participated in IYLEP Social Media Institute at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, four AUIS students participated in IYLEP Public Policy Institute at University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and three others participated in IYLEP World Learning. During that time, we had an impressive, fantastic, and unforgettable experience.
This program basically consists of two parts: academic and cultural, which we called “the fun part.” As the only AUIS students in Social Media Institute, Randi and I each got three certificates: one from the Embassy of the United States in Baghdad & FHI 360, the another from the School of Mass Communications and the Global Education Office at VCU, and the third for first and second place award by Social Media Institute at VCU.
We spent 5 days in Washington, D.C. for the opening conference. We participated in various activities, visited popular tourist attractions, and attended lectures. For example, we went to a lecture about American Government and the Presidential Election of 2012 by Philip Patlan, who worked for the White House during Obama’s and Bush’s administrations. He talked about life in the U.S briefly, and then discussed public life as well. In the very beginning of his speech, he said that individuality is very important in the U.S. After his lecture, I had a chance to talk to him.
I told him that on the one hand, individuality is not something unique about the U.S. It is important almost everywhere in the world, including Iraq, because everyone is motivated by self-interest. This is the nature of human beings, as Machiavelli discusses in The Prince. But that does not mean that family or other things such as power, money, and religion, are not important. They also play a very important role, especially in Iraqi society. On the other hand, yes, Patlan was right because individuality is more important in the U.S than in Iraq, where family is usually more in charge of society than individuals. Then, he talked about public life which is very different from public life in Iraq, because we do not have a strong government, a lot of associations, nonprofit organizations and NGOs, as they do in the U.S.
Another interesting thing that I happened in D.C was seeing AUIS President Dr. Athanasios Moulakis on the street. One day, in the evening, we went to see the White House and the Capitol Hill and some other popular places in D.C. After that, we took a taxi to go back to our hotel. On the way, we stopped at a red traffic light, and suddenly I saw Dr. Moulakis. He was walking on the street. I called him and he turned around to me, and he said Hello, but unfortunately, I did not have a chance to talk to him because the cab driver pulled away. I told him to stop for a few minutes, but he could not because it was too crowded.
After the opening conference in D.C., IYLEP participants from Public Policy headed to Amherst in Massachusetts, while the Social Media participants headed to Virginia Beach on the Atlantic Ocean. We spent the weekend swimming during daytime and attending concerts at night. After that, we went to Richmond, VA. Richmond, which is the capital city of Virginia, is only 2 hours away from Washington D.C., but it is totally different. When we first arrived in Richmond, I felt like I was visiting another country!
We had Social Media class for one month with VCU students in Richmond. During every class, experts on social media lectured us. We had midterm and final exams, assignments on Twitter and Delicious.com, and presentations on social media tools and Iraq. After the class, we also did some other activities. For example, we visited CBS6, a local TV station, and Randi and I were selected by our professor and IYLEP staff for an interview about social media, Virginia, and Iraq. The anchor of CBS6 asked me a question about one thing that I would like to tell the Americans, and my response was that I hope that more Americans will take interest in what is currently happening in Iraq. Iraq has been developed since the liberation of Iraq in 2003. There has been a lot of construction and investment. Our education is getting better. Our economy is growing every day. I would like to tell the Americans that what you see in the news about Iraq is not always correct. If Americans want to get a better understating about Iraq, they should visit Iraq to see the progress.
We also wrote blog posts for Richmond.com. My article was about politics and equality in my hometown, Rania, and Sulaimani in particular. The most important part of the academic side of this program was our projects for nonprofit organizations. We worked for non-profit organizations with VCU students in Richmond. Our class was divided into 10 teams. There were IYLEP students and VCU students in every team. Our client was Fan Free Clinic, which was the first free clinic in the Commonwealth of Virginia. We created YouTube video, Tumblr, social media strategy and manual, and other social media platforms for our client. By the end of the course, each team presented their projects, which were judged by 3 experts on social media. Randi’s team won first place in the final project by voting from the audience and the judges, and my team placed second.
In short, the most important part of working for nonprofit organizations was the combination of VCU and IYLEP students in each team. We learned a lot from each other. They learned a lot about Iraq and our culture, and we learned many things from VCU students about American culture, American history, American Government, even American music and food. This experience proved to me that it is absolutely correct when they say students can learn not only from their professors, but also from other students as well, especially if the students have different backgrounds. I think this is why or it may be one of the reasons that the universities in the U.S attempt to diversify their student body populations by accepting international students.
Finally, we returned to Iraq on August 6. Since I returned, I have been asked by a number of people about the main purpose of the program. I am sure some of you who read this blog post have the same question. The main purpose of this program is not to get a certificate. It is not only about social media or public policy. It is about life in general. We experienced many different things. We compared life and culture in the U.S and life in Iraq. There are a lot of similarities and differences. For example, one of the differences that I observed was that dreams and goals differ between Iraqis and Americans. In the US, everyone can have a long term goal and achieve that goal if they want, and they make a lot of effort to pursue that goal. However, in Iraq, people have a lot of short term goals, but it is not easy to accomplish short term goals because of the political instability and some other problems that we have faced. One of the similarities is diversity. The U.S is also very diverse like Iraq.
This blog post first appeared on www.auis.edu.iq