SUU Students Explore a Middle Eastern Understanding in NYC

Published: October 05, 2009 | Read Time: 4 minutes

A group of 12 students from Southern Utah University recently returned from a whirlwind trip to New York City. Their travel itinerary, however, was not focused on ferry boats, Broadway productions or even an elevator ride to the top of one of the city’s iconic skyscrapers – instead, these 12 young academics joined 100 additional college students from across the country in a diplomatic cultural exchange with influential world leaders and political groups. 

Capitalizing on the timing of the United Nations General Assembly which convened last week, the trip was designed to expose students to a variety of perspectives on democracy in the Middle East. 

As such, SUU’s students met with leaders from Iran and Nepal; spent time with politicians and organizations dedicated to the cause of human rights; and met with some of the nation’s top Middle Eastern scholars. 

Now, back on campus, the student delegation will report on their experience this Thursday, October 8, at noon in the Sharwan Smith Theatre. 

Their reflection on the journey from Cedar to New York City in the pursuit of a heightened global understanding exemplifies the long-lasting impact SUU hopes to make on many of its students by encouraging the exploration of differing views and responsible citizenry within a global democracy. 

Though short, their 3-day trip to the big apple has certainly broadened these 12 young students’ horizons. 

Likely the most controversial of the student’s activities while in New York was their dinner and question-and-answer session with the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And though Ahmadinejad’s anti-American sentiments and seeming disregard for human rights makes press headlines week after week, SUU’s students all left for New York in eager anticipation of the discussion that was to come from their meeting with the Iranian leader. 

And though their meeting with Ahmadinejad was more scripted than the students had hoped, according to their advisor, Doug Larson, director of the Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics and Public Service at SUU, the contrived chat did more than he expects Ahmadinejad had expected when he and his publicists opted to open Ahmadinejad’s administration to the queries of the Unites States’ young political scholars. 

In addition, to meeting with Ahmadinejad, the students from SUU joined religious leaders from the World Council of Churches at the Intercontinental Barclay Hotel for a question and answer session with members of the Iranian parliament. The members of parliament in attendance represented several minority groups in Iran including Jews, Assyrian Christians, Armenian Christians, and Zoroastrians. This discussion was more open and productive, again focusing on areas of human rights, religious freedom, foreign policy, and the rights of Iranian minorities. 

The students also met throughout the week with professors from surrounding universities and human rights activists (including Hadi Ghaemi, who led the major protests at the United Nations). Students were informed about human rights abuses against the Iranian people, and students were encouraged to become advocates for democracy movements. 

And to Larson, “More than anything else,” this broad exposure “allowed the students to see a very complex issue in all its complexity.” 

He adds, “It really opened our students’ eyes to the many ways political motivation and influence can impact ‘the truth’.” 

Indeed, many of the students from SUU agreed that every meeting presented a completely different “reality,” and they were glad for the opportunity to, as political science major Alex Francis put it “sort through the rhetoric that all politicians use to persuade their public.” 

Francis, who spent last summer “reading everything [he] could about international relations with Iran,” continues, “While I certainly don’t agree with Ahmadinejad, after this experience, I do feel I have a broader perspective upon which to reevaluate my own perceptions. I don’t have the answers but I now have a different line of questions to help define those answers.” 

According to SUU Provost Brad Cook, that educated and careful evaluation of any issue, whether it be political, professional or personal, is exactly what SUU hopes to instill in its students. 

Larson, who was with the students in all the meetings they attended, is happy to report that this quick trip to New York did just that. 

He explains, “In terms of international relations with any country, we have to be able to engage them diplomatically in order to gain any influence. Our 12 students, many of whom have political aspirations, now have a much more realistic perspective of this one issue; our hope is they will remember this experience when they face conflict in any form throughout their lives.” 

In addition, according to Larson, during the U.N.’s general assembly, New York City is overrun by Americans engaging in international diplomacy, relations and civil service. Larson states, “Our students really had their eyes opened to the many, many opportunities they didn’t know existed.” 

He adds, “We do all we can to teach our students as much as we can in the short time they are at SUU, but even so, I suspect the four days our students spent in New York City did as much for their understanding of international relations and diplomacy as they may gain in all four years at SUU.” 

This unique experience was arranged by SUU Provost Brad Cook and Leavitt Institute Executive Director Doug Larson in conjunction with faculty from Utah Valley University and Westminster College. The students were hosted by Professor Parviz Mwaredge of the State University of New York , Binghamton and the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy.

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