Hollins Faculty Foster Empowerment at MEPI Student Leaders Institute

MEPI

Their roles were very different. But, as part of the U.S. – Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) Student Leaders Institute this summer, communication studies professors Jill Weber and Vladimir Bratic shared a common goal: promoting peace through collaboration and an exchange of ideas.

Funded by the U.S. Department of State, MEPI offers support to groups and individuals seeking to bring positive change to the Middle East and North Africa. It’s designed to help the people of that region increase opportunity and enhance fundamental human rights. The Student Leaders program is one of MEPI’s signature projects, bringing roughly 120 undergraduate students each year from Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, and West Bank/Gaza to the United States for an intensive six-week program.

Up to six U.S. academic institutions annually host the Student Leaders program. One of them, the University of Delaware, asked Weber to serve as both the opening and closing speaker, and Bratic to draw from his expertise in media and peace for a lecture presentation.

“My discussions were about time management, project management, and practical skills I’m focusing on in the class I teach on communication and well-being,” Weber said. She noted that she is launching a new business whose foundation is empowerment and social activism, “and I was asked to talk about that because many of these students are involved in organizations with that edge of changing their society.”

Weber urged students to embrace “the growth mindset instead of the fixed mindset. The idea of a fixed mindset is, don’t take risks. ‘I am smart, I was born smart, and anything that potentially challenges that notion of myself is scary. Any attempt to change that is something I’m going to stand away from.’

“Someone with a growth mindset focuses more on progress and development. They believe that attitudes, skills, talents, abilities, etc., can change over time. Research tells us that people with a growth mindset get higher grades and have higher levels of achievement.”

Weber believes embodying the growth mindset dramatically enhanced her own experience. “I owned my ignorance in terms of understanding Islam and Muslim traditions. I became the student and they became the teachers and that was wonderful. I made that conscious effort to come in and say, ‘There’s a lot I don’t know, and I know I don’t know, so if I’m saying something wrong or if I have a misperception, let me know.’ This was not to put the responsibility on them to educate me, but rather to let them know that I was going to ask them questions that were going to seem totally stupid, and I was okay with that. I learned a lot. In fact, I don’t know who learned more from being there.”

While Weber’s approach was to enthuse, motivate, and “power them up,” Bratic challenged the students’ ideas “about their own societies and the role of peace there. There’s this conventional way of thinking that is usually taken for granted. Whenever I sense that, my teaching focuses on pulling the chair out from underneath that. You say something controversial to get a reaction.”

When Bratic suggested to the students that the United States Army could be an agent for peace, the students responded negatively. “They could not wrap their minds around that. They see the U.S. role in Iraq as a huge failure,” he recalled.

The stage was set for a thought-provoking debate. He went on to explain to the students that “once the U.S. Army occupied Iraq, it was in their best interest to have a very specific kind of peace, not one that is interested in justice, but one that stops violent outbreaks. In the literature this is known as ‘negative peace.’ It literally means ‘cease fire.’ It doesn’t take care of the underlying causes of conflict or right the wrongs, but it is a precondition.”

By the end of Bratic’s lecture, he said some of the students remained unmoved by his argument, but others understood that “you need to be able to open yourself to the possibility that there is another option, another answer. So my teaching is to probe, to keep your eyes open and say your learning is not finished.”

Weber said it has been gratifying to bring examples from the Student Leaders Institute back to the classroom at Hollins. “I’m able to say, ‘While we have the rhetoric that divides us and suggests that we are so different, when you start to chip away at that, you can really see our similarities. They’re passionate just like we’re passionate, and they’re students just like you’re students.’”