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