By Shanna O’Mara
In the weeks following President Donald Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order to temporarily ban migrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries, unrest among Muslim-Americans and other citizens has increased. However, on March 6, Trump revised his order, exempting Iraq, and one class on campus certainly took notice.
Every week throughout the semester, Adjunct Professor Roberta Fiske-Rusciano’s global studies course, the Student Global Village, has been web conferencing with students in Iraq. Many of their recent discussions have centered around the U.S. election and decisions made by the president.
“Since the presidential election, some of the questions from our Iraqi peers have been, ‘What is it about Donald Trump that the American people like?’” Fiske-Rusciano said. “[The Iraqi students said,] ‘He said that Iraq is not a sovereign nation, and he is coming to take our oil. We feel very unsteady. Can the U.S. be trusted if the president makes such statements?’”
According to Fiske-Rusciano, several of the Iraqi students this semester have family members fighting alongside American troops against the Islamic State in the city of Mosul, adding to the significance of connecting with this country. However, this is not the first time Rider students have directly communicated with a war-torn area.
This global studies course has been available to students since 2004. For the first five years, students web conferenced with those from the American University in Cairo, Egypt. This partnership ended before the 2011 revolution in Cairo, during which activists gathered in Tahrir Square, protesting the poverty, unemployment and government corruption that crippled the city.
After these conversations ended, Rider students looked to another country of interest at the time.
“In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Rider University students felt increasingly isolated from the rest of the world,” Fiske-Rusciano said. “Class discussions and university forums, where issues of terrorism or diversity were discussed, revealed frustration about the declining international image of the United States. Some students expressed anger towards other nations, particularly Middle Eastern and predominantly Muslim countries. Islamic students on campus felt vulnerable and defensive because of a general Islamophobia that infiltrated the campus from the outside society.”
In the fall of 2009, the class began video chatting with students from the University of Kufa located in Najaf, Iraq. This partnership provided an opportunity for open dialogue among students from two countries that have been at odds for a long time. The Iraq War officially began in 2003 and raged on through 2011.
“It’s not like you can go to Iraq and sit and talk with these people at this point,” said Director of Global Studies Frank Rusciano.
Technology has opened the door for these conversations, and students are now able to freely discuss their curiosities and fears.
“Students often felt they could not raise controversial questions about why other countries might dislike the U.S., whether our actions in Iraq actually served our interests, and how we should view Islam, for fear of being called unpatriotic in the midst of a war,” Fiske-Rusciano said.
In Feb. 2016, Abdulhussein Kadhim Reishaan from the University of Kufa traveled to Rider in honor of International Day.
“Last year, we had an Iraqi professor who came to speak here, and he wouldn’t have been allowed in when that travel ban was in place for Iraqis, despite the fact that we had invited him,” Rusciano said. “Six or seven years ago, we had an Iraqi professor who came and taught a course, and she would not have been allowed in to do that.”
The global studies course has also hosted long-term video conferencing with Ulster University in Northern Ireland and Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, according to Fiske-Rusciano.
Weekly conversations focus on creating “an agenda of understanding to dispel stereotypes and work towards peace,” according to Fiske-Rusciano, as well as preparing students for work in the global community and economy.
“[We are] transforming student perspectives through dialogue, so that they understand that international policy must be based on facts and mutual understanding, not fear, ignorance or imposed dogma,” Fiske-Rusciano said. “[This course is aimed at] reducing prejudices by putting a human face upon Islam and peoples of the Middle East region and other areas of the world.”
Although Rusciano sees great value in this program, he could not accurately measure its influence on students.
“It’s hard to really say how important this is because it depends on what the individual takes away from it on both sides,” he said. “Some students have said, ‘I think this should be a required course at the university.’ ‘I have a roommate who said, “I don’t understand why you’re talking to these people. Why don’t we just bomb them all?” and she said, ‘That’s the reason why I think everybody should take this course.’”
Fiske-Rusciano has received grants from the Department of Education, the Kettering Foundation, Santander and the Independent Colleges of New Jersey to expand the Student Global Village and is currently applying for more to expedite this growth.