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Marine Course Dispels Cultural Myths

New America Media, News Report, Suzanne Manneh Posted: Aug 05, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO Last month, 16-year-old Erie French of Corona, Calif., received an e-mail that he said changed his life.

At the same time, on the other side of the world, 16-year-old Noura Mansour of Port Said, Egypt, also received a "life-changing" e-mail.

The e-mails notified French and Mansour that they were among 60 high school students chosen from a pool of more than 400 applicants to participate in an accelerated, international ocean science pilot program called Ocean for Life.

Spearheaded by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in partnership with the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE), the pilot program brought students from throughout the Middle East, United States and Canada together in Washington, D.C., July 26 to learn about the governments involvement in marine research.

The students were split into two groups, one bound for the Florida Keys and the other for Northern California to follow a tightly packed schedule.

That includes interviewing and studying with leading experts in the field, and ultimately creating a multimedia project documenting their experience. National Geographics photography camp and American University's Center for Environmental Filmmaking are training the students.

French and Mansour, participants in the Northern California project, which will conclude Aug. 9, said it wasnt just their acceptance into such a prestigious academic summer program that excited them so much, but the fact that one of the goals of the program is to foster a better understanding of the western and eastern cultures.

Ive always wanted to experience something like this for myself, said French, who is considering pursuing a degree in biology at UC Riverside.
I'd never really known any Arabs or Muslims, except for one classmate a few years ago, so this was my chance to finally expand my horizons.

Frenchs roommate in the program is from Saudi Arabia.

Mansour, on the other hand, said it was a chance to finally see America for herself.

My sister had spent a year in America for a university exchange program and told me all about it, she said, noting that the media on both sides of the globe could be misleading in portraying images of people and their cultures.

America is beautiful," she said, beaming, still in a daze that she was finally here. "It's so interesting to see how the American culture is made up of so many of the world's cultures together. This is just so cool.

Program organizers had hoped to see such a reaction from the participants. They said it validated their belief that having students from the Middle East would break stereotypical notions about them, said Jonathan Shannon of NOAA.

It made a lot of sense to us to mainly focus on students from the Arab and Muslim world, Shannon said, noting that programs such as this are helping to foster, albeit in a small way, the kind of cooperation between the United States and Muslim countries that President Obama said he would like to see.

Whats more is that the participants get to tell in their own words stories about their own home countries, Shannon said. We often see the same stories in the same media lens, especially about the relations between these two parts of the world.

Lauren Demko of American University Center for Environment Filmmaking, who is training the students for their multimedia projects, agreed.

Today you hear, 'Arabs and Muslims with westerners? No we don't get along.' But there's an unheard side, and programs like this provide an opportunity for understanding, she asserted.

Prior to the students arrival, program coordinators and facilitators completed cultural competency training to better prepare for working with the visitors.

We didn't want to do anything that would offend anyone, and didn't want to go into the program with any of the participants having preconceived notions about anyone else, said Shannon.

According to several coordinators, students from the United States and Canada were excited to discover for themselves information about Islam and the Arab world. They said all of the participants immediately connected with each other.

French, the only African-American student in the program, said: No one saw me as the African American. We all came to realize, as clich as I know it sounds, that its not, Hes black, hes white, hes Jordanian, hes Lebanese, but that were all people.

Photo courtesy of Mary Jane Schramm, NOAA.

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