Mahitab Mustafa, a 21-year-old economics and politics major from Sudan, had an epiphany while studying at Nazareth College this summer – her first time in the United States.
“In Sudan,” she says, “you learn, study, go to the exam and write. But here it’s not about right and wrong. It’s more about ideas and theories, about expanding the mind. That was a self-discovery for me, to look at myself in a different way and say, ‘OK then, it’s not about the hours I sit at the desk. It’s how I look at things.’”
Mustafa was one of 20 student leaders from five tribal African countries – all with different languages and cultures – who participated in the 2011 Study of the U.S. Institute for Pluralism, a program that allows international students to immerse themselves in the political, economic and cultural aspects of American society. Besides Sudan, the countries are Angola, Liberia, Mozambique, and Sierra Leone.
Nazareth is one of only seven colleges and universities in the country hosting summer institutes sponsored by the Academy for Education Development in Washington, D.C. Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, the program uses classroom lectures on topics like race relations as well as field trips to historical sites to help the students develop their own insights about this country.
“This group was handpicked for being intellectually advanced,” says Dr. George Eisen, executive director and associate vice president for academic affairs in the Center for International Education. “The American model provides an important means of understanding how our principles for co-existing in extremely diverse societies can be transferred to their native countries. These are the new leaders who will be bringing back important ideas.”
In its sixth year, the Institute for Pluralism has also worked with students from Turkey and Afghanistan. (One Turkish student who arrived opposed to non-governmental organizations has gone on to work in a program partly funded by the United Nations.)
Letting go of stereotypes and raising consciousness can be challenging.
“We’ve gone through academic gymnastics,” says Tommy Kain, a 24-year-old history major from Sierra Leone. He came to campus with the notion that he would, as in his country, be listening to presentations every day. Instead he has gone through an intensive multidisciplinary review of American society.
The immersion aspect, particularly exposure to the hard work that went into shaping our nation’s identity, magnifies the work these student leaders have ahead of them.
Mustafa is heartbroken by her country’s inability to find peace, stability and economic growth: “I would like to see a future without discrimination whatsoever, without tribal disputes and without corrupted governments. I just simply wish the people good living.”
Amazed to learn from visits to the Susan B. Anthony House and the Women’s Rights National Historical Park museum that American women had to struggle so much for equality, Mustafa found inspiration.
“We’re so far behind in Africa, but maybe we can do it also,” she says.
The epiphanies aren’t always a one-way street.
Because Americans also have stereotypes, “anything that engages them with international students breaks down barriers and really enhances the culture of the campus,” says Dr. Timothy Kneeland, associate professor in history and political science and academic director of the U.S. Institute for Pluralism. “It makes our own students and host families connected to the globe in a way that they weren’t at the beginning of the summer. When it’s time to say goodbye, people are crying.”