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By Lauren Stewart
Assistant Director for Development
In a world where the arts of hand-written letters and personal phone calls seem to be lost forms of communication, outpaced by the new social norms of sending speedy friend requests and tweeting out weekend plans, the VCU School of Mass Communications’ Social Media Institute and the Iraqi Young Leader Exchange Program (IYLEP) are instead utilizing these social media platforms in a way that brings personal face-to-face interaction to a new level.
Breaking through the in-personal facade of the digital era by combining classrooms from Iraq and VCU, students are meeting new people from across the globe, not through an online forum, but in a four-week, service-learning class held at the 500 Academic Centre building.
Comprised of eager students with a thirst to learn about each other’s cultures, beliefs and backgrounds, the IYLEP Social Media Institute combines 24 Iraqi students with 19 VCU students who embark together on a journey cascading through a sea of cultural differences to create social media projects all based on the universal need of helping local nonprofit organizations.
“By far, my favorite part about the program is learning about the lives of the IYLEP students,” said Ci’Ara Boyd, VCU senior public relations student. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every IYLEP presentation about Iraq. I really see the country in a totally different and positive light.”
Led by the instruction of Mass Communications’ professors Dr. Marcus Messner and Vivian Medina-Messner, and in cooperation with VCU’s Global Education Office, this is the fourth year that VCU has been selected as only one of a handful of universities to run the U.S. State Department sponsored program. It’s the third time that the program is hosted by the School of Mass Communications.
“I am very passionate about social media. It’s part of my research and teaching agendas,” said Dr. Messner. “I especially like that I can combine my passion for social media with my international background in this program. I first came as an exchange student to the U.S. Seeing the Iraqi students and their experiences here is very special to me.”
The School of Mass Communications first teamed up with VCU’s Global Education Office in early 2010 to compete for the $190,000 IYLEP grant, which is sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the international nonprofit organization FHI 360. The cornerstone of their proposal was to combine Iraqi and American students – a hallmark of the Social Media Institute and is still the only university today that implements the cross-cultural collaboration.
“There are two components to the program. One is of course social media. I want students to be able to professionally engage on social media, while at the same time being able to strategize in regards to branding and messaging and develop the organizational campaigns on a variety of platforms,” said Dr. Messner. “But I also think that the intercultural aspect of the program is very important. We put great emphasis on the interaction of Iraqi and American students.”
Maya Hughes, VCU public relations student, thinks VCU serving as the host for such a diverse program is consistent with the ethos of the university.
“It’s important for VCU students to participate in cross-cultural programs,” said Hughes. “I feel that’s what VCU is all about. VCU represents the epitome of diversity, culture, life and art.”
Out of 55 nonprofits that applied to be part of the Social Media Institute, 10 were selected by the student project teams to serve as their clients over the next four weeks.
“Our program allows them to get hands-on experience working with nonprofits and see the impact of social media,” said Medina-Messner. “I want to instill in them an ongoing curiosity about the digital world.”
Fatima Hadi, an Iraqi student studying English and expected to graduate in 2013, is working with Richmond House, a nonprofit organization that provides residential living and support for adults with autism.
“They want to spread awareness,” said Hadi. “Our strategy is to use social media to help increase the number of residents.”
Studying in America coincides with Hadi’s major of the English language, as well as her professional goal of one day becoming an English translator in Iraq.
“I always try to learn and discover new things, and I wanted to experience your culture knowing that not all American people are like what we see on TV shows,” said Hadi. “We’re exchanging and transferring cultures because not all Americans and Iraqi people have the right idea. So I’m learning, and I’ll then teach in Iraq what I have.”
Haik Petrosian, a 2012 VCU strategic advertising graduate who will begin grad school at the VCU Brandcenter this fall, thought that participating in the Social Media Institute program would be a natural fit for his future career goals and personal interests.
“My major deals a lot with perceptions, so getting a first-hand account with Iraqi students is great,” said Petrosian. “I also like doing nonprofit work. Being able to help nonprofits that don’t have the means to help themselves, it’s just the right thing to do. It makes me happy in the inside.”
Kicking off the six-week IYLEP program with a trip to Washington D.C. and to Virginia Beach, once the four-week Social Media Institute ends on July 28, the IYLEP students will spend their final week in the U.S. visiting New York City.
“Virginia Beach has been my favorite part of the program so far,” said Wasan Abbas, an education English major student from Iraq. “It was the first time in my life I’ve ever been to the beach. I met new American people, and I’ll never forget the 4th of July there. It was the most beautiful day of my whole life.”
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Updated: August 6, 2012