“Have you ever noticed how in movies the Arab guy will drive this really nice car into the middle of the desert? If I had a car that nice there’s no way I would drive it out into the desert. It’s so stupid!”
St. Thomas senior Grace Nelson nodded her head along with six other college students as they listened to one of their peers, a student from the Middle East, talk about the frustration of how her people are portrayed in films and TV in the West.
"They were saying it’s the three B’s that are assumed of people who are Muslim, and that’s belly dancers, bombs and billionaires. People who aren’t aware of what life is like in the Middle East and that part of the world, they’re going to take on those stereotypes,” Nelson said. “That’s really frustrating and hurtful for people who are there.”
These are the kinds of dialogues that took place each week during spring semester in Dr. Amy Finnegan’s justice and peace studies class, Conflict Analysis and Transformation. St. Thomas students logged online to Soliya, virtual chat rooms that brought together students from “The East” and “The West,” to talk about the relationships between their cultures, what issues their countries face, how different cultures deal with similar issues and, in general, what life is like for their global peers.
“The idea is that when you actually have face time with people you can build on your similarities and build on your connections,” Finnegan said. “That person-to-person contact can be transformative.”
Global exchange at home
This spring was the second time one of Finnegan’s classes at St. Thomas has taken part in Soliya; she previously had engaged classes in the international program when she was at Tufts University in Boston. The concept – beyond the technological requirements – is fairly simple: Facilitators from Soliya guide conversations (in English, with translating as needed) that feature four students from mostly Middle Eastern countries and four from western countries. After getting to know one another a bit, students dive into many topics over about 10 weeks. The aim is to develop conflict resolution skills, media literacy skills and the ability to listen to – and appreciate – other people’s views.
“I’ve learned to respect other people’s opinions and back away from my own for a little bit, and actually listen to others,” freshman Paige Hieptas said. “That’s a huge benefit of the program. Creating dialogue with people that are different than I am, and being aware of those differences.”
“The goal of the program is to set a common ground,” Nelson added. “It’s about breaking it down so you get to the same point. There are times where you feel like you’re the only person feeling this way, but you talk about it and make your way through these conversations.”
Back in Finnegan’s classroom (the Soliya sessions are conducted outside of class), students write about and discuss their experiences and takeaways. Part of the challenge – and appeal – Finnegan said, is that each student gets a completely different experience based on who’s in their group and what topics they discuss. Many times current events will drive a weekly topic (ISIS and Ferguson made for interesting talking points this spring), or social issues will sometimes spark dialogue, like in Hieptas’ group when homosexuality struck a particularly lively discussion.
As St. Thomas continues to renew its commitment to global learning, Soliya offers a prime opportunity to learn how to listen to, exchange ideas with and gain appreciation for views from people around the world.
“That more isolated, sheltered perspective isn’t really going to get us anywhere. It has for a while, but not anymore,” Finnegan said. “By 2020 whites will not be the majority in America anymore. That’s a big deal. You need to think about how other perspectives might be different from you. It’s important to at least engage in those perspectives.”