Author Archives: Nael

Face to Face with Stereotypes: Virtual exchange pairs students across cultures

The following is the content of an article appearing in San Jose State University‘s Connie L Lurie College of Education’s Newsletter:

Americans think people in the Muslim Middle East are violent, conservative and close-minded.

Middle Easterners think Americans are violent, permissive and lacking rules that govern their conduct.

These stereotypes intrigued Nadia Sorkhabi, an associate professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Development, and Nael Alami, a visiting professor in ChAD.

How could they challenge those stereotypes, especially among young people pursuing education degrees that would lead to professional careers as educators or human service professionals where those stereotypes might influence how they serve students and families from different cultural backgrounds?

Those questions led to a virtual exchange program between students at Lurie College in San José and students at Modern University for Business and Science in Beirut, Lebanon. Over two semesters students in ChAD’s Senior Seminar course have been paired with students of the same course in Beirut, listening to the same lectures and cooperating on the same projects.

According to Sorkhabi, who teaches the ChAD Senior Seminar, it’s all a technology-boosted experiment in testing cultural attitudes while building bridges between two groups at odds.

“We knew that we were dealing with two cultural groups that have very negative views of one another,” says Sorkhabi, who is of Iranian descent. “There really is mutual antipathy, where Middle Easterners see Americans as violent, given their experiences of war, and similarly Americans believe that Middle Easterners are violent.”

Alami, who is Lebanese and vice president for research and innovation at Modern University for Business and Science in Beirut, said one of the most meaningful aspects of the project has been the face-to-face interaction, via Skype or other conferencing technology, that has allowed paired students from Lebanon and San José to learn about parenting styles through weekly hour-long guided conversations.

“The virtual exchange allows students to easily communicate, understand and explore individuals from this culture that they wouldn’t interact with otherwise,” Alami said. “There’s so much value in that.”

Students explored parenting practices in their countries through long interviews about their own experiences from the ages of 13 through 18. What was discipline like? Did parents have rules about homework or dating? How did they enforce them?

Before the exchanges, both sets of students believed that the stereotypes they had about the other group also applied to their parenting practices. Americans believed Middle Eastern parents were conservative, rigidly authoritarian and biased against daughters.

The Lebanese students believed American parents were too permissive, allowing their children to do whatever they want.

Those stereotypes, if left unchallenged, can cause harm in the workplace, Sorkhabi said.

“These assumptions that service professionals and teachers make about parenting and home life [and] children’s experiences growing up, really do affect children, their access to education, how they are treated and the kinds of services and quality of education that they get,” she said.

“That’s where the value of the virtual student exchange comes in,” Alami said. “To tackle and overcome these stereotypes you can use a theoretical framework and literature that states how these negative stereotypes are not necessarily based on factual evidence, or you can allow the students to undergo an exchange program face to face.”

After the virtual exchange semester, students reported different views of their counterparts’ culture and parenting. And many expressed an interest in continuing the friendships they had made online.

The students will soon be joining the workforce, and Alami and Sorkhabi hope the exchange semester will prepare them for meeting people of different backgrounds and cultures.

“It will broaden their horizons,” Alami said. “It might trigger a sense of curiosity in them and they might explore other preconceptions that they’ve had.”

Sorkhabi and Alami have collected and are analyzing the data and plan to publish the results. They are also working on a documentary about the project.

Thoughts on the Higher Education Ecosystem in Lebanon

يعاني المجتمع اللبناني من غياب الموضوعيّة والتحليل العلمي في تناول المواضيع المطروحة للبحث بشكلٍ عام، بغياب حركة ثقافية معرفية قادرة على تمييز النّقد الجادّ، المتأتّي من تمحيص وتدقيق- و هُما أساس البحث المتجرِّد- من النّقد اللاذع، الشّعبوي، التبسيطيّ السّهل. ولا يسلم قطاع التعليم العالي من هذه الغوغائية في التقييم، إذ يَدرُج أن يطال النّقد أو المدح ما يُعرَف ب”الجامعات القديمة” (أغلب الظنّ أنّ المقصود هنا هو “العريقة”)، و”الجامعات الجديدة” بشكلٍ تسطيحي. وكأنّ كلّ من هاتين المجموعتين تشتمل على مؤسسات تربوية متشابهة الأهداف والرؤى، موحَّدة الجسم التعليمي والاداري، متساوية الإنجازات والنّجاحات، أم الفشل والتحدّيات. ولا يخفى أحداً أنّ قطاع التعليم حول العالم قد عرف تطورات محورية في طرائق التعليم وأهدافه، والجسم الطلّابي الذي يخدم. إِلَّا أنّنا، وكما تعوّدنا في بلادنا، نفضّل الوقوف على الاطلال والتّعامي عن الدّور الحيوي الذي تلعبه بعض الجامعات الحديثة-النشأة، ونغضّ الطرف عن المشاكل الجمّة التي تعانيها بعض الجامعات الأقدم. لذلك، وللمساهمة الإيجابية في هذا النّقاش لا بد من الإضاءة على بعض المعطيات:

١- إنّ الدّور الإيجابي الذي تلعبه بعض الجامعات الخاصة العريقة (وأنا أحد خرّيجيها) والتي ميّزت لبنان وجعلته منارة الشرق، يترافق مع تكلفةٍ ماليّة باهظة تتخطّى قدرة المواطن متوسّط الدخل وتمنعه من ارتيادها، وهي أساساً (أي تلك الجامعات) لا تتساوى بمستواها التعليمي والأكاديمي.

٢- حقّقت بعض الجامعات الحديثة-النشأة إنجازات مميَّزة وطليعيّة لم تنل ما تستحقّه من الاهتمام والإضاءة لغياب القدرة التسويقية والإهتمام الإعلامي. بعض هذه الإنجازات على سبيل المثال لا الحصر تتمثَّل بالبرامج المشترَكة مع أرقى الجامعات والمراكز العالميّة. وآخر هذه الاتفاقيات ستُطلِق صفوفاً مُشترَكة بين الجامعة الحديثة للإدارة والعلوم وكلّيّة الطبّ بجامعة ستانفورد المصنّفة أولى عالميّاً في مجالاتٍ عديدة (أبرزها علوم الحياة والكومبيوتر والإدارة..).

٣- تتعاون الجامعات اللبنانية، قديمها وجديدها، في مشاريع بحثيّة مُشْتَركة مع جامعاتٍ أوروبيّة وأميركيّة رائدة، حيث يعمل اساتذة جامعيين لبنانيين واجانب جنباً الى جنب، وهو دليل أنّ في الجامعات المُخْتَلِفةِ، اساتذة وطلّاب لبنانيين ذوي قدرة علميّة واكاديميّة عالية لا تقتصِر على مجموعة واحدة من مؤسسات التعليم العالي. فمراكز الأبحاث العالمية لا تبدي أهميّة لتاريخ تأسيس الجامعات اللبنانيّة بقدر اهتمامها بمستواها التعليمي ومشاريعها، ما أدّى إلى نجاحاتٍ وبرامج تبادل متقدمة لجامعات لبنانية حديثة-النشأة.

٤- أدّت (وتؤدّي) بعض الجامعات “الجديدة” دوراً مركزيّاً في خدمة جيل من ذوي الدّخل المحدود الذين تخرّجوا الى سوق العمل أو اكملوا دراساتهم وأبحاثهم في ابرز جامعات العالم. فكانت هذه الجامعات اللبنانية باب عبورٍ وتواصل ثقافي وعلمي الى عالمٍ أرحب وأوسع، في سبيل بناء وطنٍ أكثر ازدهاراً، غنىً، وتنوُّعاً.

٥- تبقى الجامعة اللبنانية مسؤوليّةً مشترَكة لكافة قطاعات المجتمع وعلى رأسها القطاع التربوي الذي يشكِّل التعاون والتكامل الأكاديمي احد ركائزه وأرقى ميِّزاته.

ختاماً، خلقت العولمة فضاء جديدا للتعليم العالي ، وأنتجت الثورة التكنولوجية نماذج جديدة اختصرت المسافات الزمنية وشكلت فرصة استثنائية للتطور اذا ما وجدت الأسس المؤسساتية الثابتة. من الضروري اعتبار المؤسسات العريقة مرجعية لتوفير قاعدة للتطور وتوفير المؤشرات والمقاييس لاصدار احكام موضوعية بشأن واقع الجامعات وموقعها .
فموضوع العلاقة بين الجامعة والمجتمع يشكل قضية محورية ، والامر مرتبط بسياق متعدد الأبعاد على صلة بحالة المجتمع المدني والإعلام.

عسى أن تُشكّل هذه الأفكار يوماً ما أساساً لنِقاشٍ علمي، منهجي وشفّاف حول التعليم الجامعي في لبنان بعيداً عن الغوغائيّة والتّسطيح السّائدين

Walking and the Creative Brain

“Walking is man’s best medicine.”

These words, uttered by Hippocrates, are certainly true on a physical level, as regular brisk walking helps in maintaining a healthy weight, prevents or helps manage heart disease, high blood pressure, and type II diabetes, strengthens bones and muscles, alleviates stress, and improves balance and coordination. Even more interestingly, new research continues to show that walking is especially important to boost creativity.

From Hippocrates to Tesla and Steve Jobs

In a study published in 2014, researchers from Stanford University found that walking boosts creative output by 60%, allowing college students participating in the study to enhance their “divergent thinking”, a key element in truly creative cognition.

Indeed, walking has been associated with many a great creative genius: Steve Jobs was known for his “walking meetings” with business associates at Apple, especially when creative problem solving was required. Nikola Tesla, the genius mind behind alternating current (AC) electric system and the Tesla coil used in radio systems, took long daily walks and claimed to have formed his ideas during these strolls before committing anything to paper. Other creative minds in the fields of literature, philosophy, biology, physics, mathematics, and music to name a few, made walking a daily activity that enhances their creativity and problem-solving abilities, while boosting their morale and positive emotions.

Walking, Creativity, and the Cognitive Pause

The reason behind this link between walking and creativity is not completely clear at the moment. Yet, a growing body of evidence from behavioral and cognitive neuroscience, psychology, and medicine has resulted in some interesting theories. Scientists know that walking requires the simultaneous use and activation of multiple regions in the brain that are needed to coordinate our movements and maintain balance while we walk.  A study from 2016 speculates that complex human cognition, and our ability to innovate, developed right along with the ability to walk. In other words, the complex brain structures needed for walking allowed humans to develop increasingly sophisticated ways of thinking. This connection could therefore be the reason that when we go for a walk, we indirectly activate regions necessary for sophisticated cognitive processing, thus leading to innovative, creative ideas!

Walking may also induce creativity through its ability to induce what we refer to as the “cognitive pause”. To understand what the “cognitive pause” is, imagine yourself stuck on finding the right answer in an exam or for a complex problem at work. Your best chance of getting over your incapacity to find a solution after deep and prolonged thinking is to step out and take a break. That is when we experience the Eureka moments. This “pause” is necessary for creative thinking since it allows the brain to free itself from preconceptions and specific patterns of thinking. The cognitive pause requires relaxation of the mind, letting go of the problem at hand, something that walking is perfectly capable of doing.

Walking, Meditation, and Creative Thinking

Walking is similar to another activity that is also known to enhance creativity: meditation. In fact, walking is naturally meditative because it is relaxing, boosting our endorphins and anti-inflammatory cytokines, releasing tension from the muscles, and distracting the mind from other cognitive tasks. Walking is also a rhythmic activity, which is known to lower brainwave frequency in a manner that is identical to meditation. Walking and meditation both keep our brains in an alpha-brainwave state, which appears to be the best state for creative thought.

And so, the next time you need a creative solution to a problem, scientific research suggests that you should let it go, relax, and go for a walk. Friedrich Nietzsche was not mistaken when he claimed, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”.

*This article appears in Health & Wellness magazine’s July issue

** This is part one of a series of articles appearing in Health & Wellness magazine on the topic of creativity, neuroscience, and mindfulness

Establishing a Pioneering Wellness Network in Lebanon

The culture of wellness has emerged in recent years as a novel concept that is rooted in the discoveries in health sciences and research showing that human well-being is more holistic and interconnected than previously assumed. While this concept is new in Western societies, our traditions and heritage in the East (and in collectivist societies in general) has innately understood the importance of living a well-rounded life that is based on social responsibility, close-knit communities, spiritual purity, mental fortitude, and physical strength. By fully endorsing these concepts, and with a sense of public service that is at the heart of its mission, the Modern University for Business & Science (MUBS) established the National Wellness Network (NWN) as a platform to promote wellness and preventive healthcare.

The Network works with specialized multi-disciplinary teams to coordinate awareness campaigns, collect data, explore new avenues of assistance, and offer customized healthcare solutions to Lebanese communities throughout the country. By being an extension of the University, and a manifestation of its mission of social service and responsibility, NWN offers optimal access to healthcare facilities and leading experts with vast knowledge. The Network works closely with community leaders, non-governmental organizations, and the public sector, striving to bridge the gap between research and practice. NWN offers a platform for its students, faculty, and partners to work in the field with the public, mostly in under-served areas, to improve their livelihood, well-being, and their health.

By introducing new lifestyle concepts in the everyday lives of Lebanese citizens of all ages, NWN stands out as a unique model in the Middle East region, where higher education institutions are more focused on in-class learning, and tend to dissociate themselves from the surrounding community and its needs. In contrast, NWN and MUBS are built with the needs of the community at their core and with an eye on serving the students, their parents, and their communities.

The Network strives to promote the Eight Dimensions of Wellness: Intellectual, Medical, Nutritional, Physical, Environmental, Spiritual, Psychological, and Social Wellbeing. These eight dimensions are at the core of the Network’s management spirit to promote and develop wellness programs, and to incorporate them into everyday life as sustainable habits and way of living that integrates a culture of health and fitness to educate, motivate, and empower the community to adopt a healthier lifestyle to fulfill academic, occupational, and personal goals.

As an ambassador institution of the Global Wellness Institute (GWI), NWN is building a multinational network of organizations with a shared vision and a common goal to empower citizens and help them achieve a more fulfilling life. Towards that end, NWN has been joined by over 35 organizations in Lebanon and boasts a board of directors that includes community leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists, researchers, and public figures to guide its work and the accomplishment of its mission.

NWN also offers onsite services that are accessible by the public, free of charge or for symbolic fees. These services are located in MUBS campuses, and include:

  • Physical Therapy Centers
  • Sports and Fitness Centers
  • Education and Awareness Centers
  • Social Work Center & Seniors Lounge
  • Wellness & Ecotourism Center
  • Clinics
    • Nutrition and Dietetics Clinics
    • Optometry Clinics
    • Specialized Medical Clinics

Happiness: Creating, Fostering & Spreading the Cheer

We live in a time of unprecedented stress. We are bombarded by stressors every minute of every day of our lives, be that on the professional or the personal level. As we celebrate the International Day of Happiness, the question of maintaining a sense of balance and content becomes vital for our emotional and physical well-being.
The fact that the United Nations had to dedicate an international day to celebrate an emotion that should be the essence of our existence is a clear sign of the times. That did not go unnoticed by governments around the world, with some going as far as forming cabinets centered around creating happiness, and dedicating ministries to spreading and maximizing happiness in society (a prominent example is the UAE).
Moreover, an emerging field of research is thriving as scientists investigate factors that create happiness. Early signs and data are reassuring. Happiness seems to stem from within, albeit a conscious effort should be made under certain circumstances to attain it. The research reports that wealth and happiness are not directly correlated. Additionally, happiness and positive thinking are not dictated by nature or nurture alone, meaning that, while our genes and our upbringing play a role in setting our perspective in life, conscious effort is critical for determining our happiness levels.
One interesting finding, for example, is the role empathy plays in generating happiness. Apparently, by sharing feelings of others, we become more fulfilled individuals. A healthier and happier community, therefore, is a more empathetic and humane community.