Nader Mokeddem studies English at Badji Mokhtar University in western Algeria. Hannah Fragapane is a senior University student in the international studies program. Although these students are on separate continents almost 5,000 miles apart, a web-based cultural exchange has made their unlikely connection a reality.
A new component of Dr. Lara Lengel’s International Communications course, this cross-cultural exchange is giving American and Algerian students the opportunity to not only learn about a different society and culture, but also break down some of the assumptions the Middle East and America hold about each other.
American students in Lengel’s class and Algerian students from two universities discuss a chosen weekly topic in a shared Facebook group. Topics range from wedding traditions to educational systems. Most recently, students talked about nationalism and patriotism.
Through discussion, commonalities between both societies have been realized.
“In many ways, the (Algerian students) are a lot more similar to us than many people would expect,” Fragapane said.
Many of the students have the same hobbies. She said several of the American students share favorite televisions shows and movies with Algerian students.
Additionally, the class challenges prior beliefs or assumptions about Americans and Algerians.
Mokeddem said his perception of the education system in the United States has changed since his interaction with Lengel’s class. He believes education is a basic human right and should be acquired freely by all. He said he was shocked to find out American students pay to attend college and many find themselves in debt after graduation. In Algeria, education is free and accessible to everyone who wants to utilize it.
University Graduate student Meriem Mechehoud is orchestrating this exchange. A Fulbright scholar from Algeria, Mechehoud is working on her second Master’s degree here at the University. She had planned this exchange after noticing the untapped potential of online intercultural connections as an undergraduate in Algeria.
“We live in a global society. The world is literally at our fingertips, on our phones and computers, but many of us don’t have the drive and motivation to use it,” Mechehoud said.
She hopes this exchange inspires students and engenders a passion for harnessing the information and communication available through technology.
Although continued interest in foreign cultures is encouraged, Mechehoud does not have a structured goal for the exchange. She said every involved student will take something different away from the experience.
For Mokeddem, interaction with American students has provided an opportunity to improve his English skills as well as give him insight into the lives of American students.
Fragapane said she has come to value the importance of understanding historical events through the experiences of those affected. She gave the example of the French colonization of Algeria.
“When we learn through a textbook, we aren’t understanding the emotional significance or impact that it had on Algerians,” she said.
Aside from humanizing an issue, Fragapane has also come to learn that textbooks don’t always align with the experiences of the Algerian people.
Although the exchange impacts each student in a distinct way, Mechehoud said the one similarity is a story of their experience.
“I’m giving the students, American and Algerian, an experience and a story to tell in the future. That story is the most important component,” she said.
The Facebook group is shared with 14 American students and 20 Algerian students, but Mechehoud said a small cultural exchange can be a large cultural exchange if participants see students as “webs” instead of individuals. She said each student represents a network of friends, family and co-workers, where their stories of the exchange can spread.
“This is not only one person. This is a whole network. So you look at everyone as a group of people and connections,” Mechehoud said. “This is how your effect can be bigger.”
Although Mechehoud graduates this spring, the students who are involved in the exchange hope this model is continued by other University faculty members.
“This exchange is a simple set up. The University needs to encourage more exchanges like this in many disciplines,” Fragapane said. “All students can benefit from cultural exchanges. They don’t have to be international studies students to get involved in something international.”