A three-week teaching assignment at NYU Abu Dhabi reveals just how much can be gained from cross-cultural education.
A classroom where student experiences are the subject
I've just finished teaching a three-week course at New York University's Abu Dhabi campus. Having had the good fortune to teach at some wonderful schools across the US, I have to say this was a special experience, the result of a unique mix of students.
The course I taught was called "Bridging the Divide between the Arab World and the West". It was an examination of how westerners and Arabs have interacted with each other over the past century, including mutual misperceptions and the often tragic problems that have resulted and put both sides at risk.
Before the start of the course, I had planned my lectures and prepared class exercises. The students would create, conduct and analyse their own polls of US and Arab attitudes and would develop a class blog about the divide and the ways they experienced it. On day one, I was ready to begin according to plan. And then I met my students.
The class was made up of mostly first-year students. There were 16 in all, from 12 different countries on four continents. The range was extraordinary. Four were Arabs, including one each from the UAE, Egypt and Libya, and a Palestinian from Lebanon, each with a fascinating story to tell. There were four Americans (from Minnesota, Ohio, Virginia and New Jersey). And the other students hailed from the UK, Denmark, Bosnia, Kenya, India, Indonesia and South Korea.
Although different in many ways, they were for the most part cut from the same cloth, or were variations on a theme. They were bright and inquisitive, expressive and insightful, and open to learning from each other.
After interviewing each student on the first day, it became clear that while they were eager to learn about the UAE, and the Arab World in general, they also had a great deal to share about their own experiences in confronting the many divides that make up our modern world.
My students from Columbus, Ohio and St Paul, Minnesota, for example, wanted to tell about how their respective communities were dealing with the influx of large numbers of Somali refugees.
The ethnic and religious divides that have shaped the modern histories of India, Indonesia and Bosnia became subjects for conversation, as did the more recent tensions that have confronted Muslim immigrants to the UK, US and Denmark.
Some of the American students told about how their decision to attend a school in the Arab World had cause apprehension for their parents and peers, while some of the Arab students told of similar reactions when they declared their intention to attend an American school.
We had much to talk and write about. What was extraordinary was how supportive the students were of each other. Although New York University Abu Dhabi is only two years old, a culture had been created, in itself an important learning experience. As I watched students engage in conversation, or when I read their posts and their comments on each other's, or even when they just mingled with one another in the cafeteria, it became clear what a remarkable thing was being done here.
The UAE will be bidding to host the World Expo in 2020. The theme is "Connecting the World, Creating the Future". In many ways, this is being done across this young country every day, in business, in culture and the arts, and in the meetings of peoples in everyday life.
This also describes that experience this month in every classroom and at every lunch-table conversation. The students who are fortunate enough to be a part of this experience are being connected to the world in a very personal way. Out of this experience, a new generation of global leaders is being created.
And because students are being transformed by their encounters here, they will be better able to help to bridge the many divides they face in our increasingly complex world.
I leave here enriched and invigorated by the time I spent with my students.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute