Cultural Collaboration at VCU
Cassie Williams Jones
University Public Affairs
Two similar women with two similar interests, from two parts of the world – together at one place, at one time, for one experience.
Randi Barznji, a student at the American University of Iraq in Sulaymaniyah, and Maya Hughes, a VCU student, share a love of fashion and a hope to incorporate it into their future careers. Both are savvy business students – it’s the focus of Barznji’s college studies and Hughes, a public relations major, is minoring in business. Both also are dedicated users of social media.
The pair was among the American and Iraqi students who worked together at VCU this summer for the third year of the Iraqi Young Leaders Social Media Initiative, a program funded by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and implemented by FHI 360 to help motivated undergraduate students from Iraq study in the United States.
The VCU School of Mass Communications and Global Education Office collaborated to design this four-week program, which includes classroom and service learning.
Participants from the program worked closely together and learned not only about social media and journalism, but also from one another. Many found they had more in common than they had thought.
“This has been, by far, the most fulfilling course at VCU,” said Hughes. “It’s definitely been an awesome experience.”
Hughes said the American and Iraqi students share a motivation, passion and drive to succeed, and she was especially impressed with the visitors’ grasp of the English language and their eagerness to learn and engage.
The class of 24 Iraqi and 19 American students put their knowledge of social media to work by helping shape the professional social media strategies of 10 local nonprofits. Program organizers have seen increasing interest from nonprofits hoping to participate over the years.
Students spent four intensive weeks working in small groups to research and prepare social media campaigns, which they presented last Thursday to an audience of more than 50 people, including a judge’s panel of local social media experts.
"It was impressive to see how VCU and Iraqi students collaborated with each other. Whether it was working in teams brainstorming about social media strategies for their nonprofits or producing videos, they overcame any language and cultural barriers,” said Vivian Medina-Messner, journalism instructor in the VCU School of Mass Communications. “The great thing about using Facebook and other technology is that students can maintain those friendships and continue the conversations they started at VCU."
Their presentations included visuals and Web video components, shot by the students on cameras they were provided. The reactions were positive from the judges and nonprofit clients alike.
“At our final event, the nonprofit clients seemed very satisfied with the students' work. The project teams put a high emphasis on sustainability, meaning that they tailored their social media campaigns to the specific needs of the clients. They made sure that our projects can be integrated into the daily work flow of the organizations," said Marcus Messner, Ph.D., assistant professor in the VCU School of Mass Communications, and instructor for the IYLEP program all three years. “VCU and Iraqi students really put their hearts into these projects. And it showed.”
In addition to the interaction with Americans, the Iraqi students got a chance to bond with other Iraqis from different regions of the country. Most Iraqi citizens identify themselves with one of three groups: Sunis, Shias or Kurds. Participants in this class came from various backgrounds, and were able to learn from Iraqis of other groups.
“If it wasn’t for this program, I would never get to meet them,” said Barznji, who comes from the Kurdish region of Iraq. “It has been a great experience.”
“They come into this program as Suni, Shia or Kurd, but they leave as Iraqis,” said Medina-Messner.
Iraqi participants were honored at a send-off reception Saturday and are in New York as tourists this week before they return home.