Students get a few surprises from visiting scholars' comments on the United States.
In a weekly seminar each winter quarter, freshmen and sophomores have a chance to hear and engage in discussion with some of the Visiting Fulbright Scholars from UCLA and nearby universities. This is one of many seminars offered through the university's Fiat Lux Program, initiated in the fall of 2001 to allow students to take a one-unit pass/fail course in extra-curricular subjects that explore our post-September 11th world. As the coordinator of the Visiting Fulbright Scholar Enrichment Program in Southern California, I wanted others to be exposed to the insights and knowledge I gain from working with the scholars and decided to offer a seminar entitled, Perceptions of America Abroad, Discussions with Visiting Fulbright Scholars. I wanted students to have a chance to develop a more international view of the world through personal contacts, and perhaps become interested in studying abroad.
Against the backdrop of a colorful map of the world, each Wednesday afternoon a Fulbright Scholar, or sometimes more than one from the same country, spends the first half of the class speaking about her/his country, the work he or she is doing, and some specific examples of how America is thought of back home. The second half of the hour is devoted to class discussion where students can raise questions with the speaker. During the week, the students write responses to the speaker, sometimes in the form of a letter, send them to me by email and I, in turn, send them on to the Fulbright Scholar. Toward the end of the quarter, we have a dinner seminar at my home where students and scholars can become better acquainted and continue discussions from class more informally. (See photos). At the dinner when people introduce themselves, the scholars have a better chance to get to know the students and find that many of them have their own interesting ethnic backgrounds and stories to tell.
Among the insights students wrote about this past quarter in their responses to the Fulbright Scholars: "Women in New Zealand got the right to vote in the 1890s, long before American women did." "I had not thought about a connection of the Maoris to African Americans. . . . They received the right to vote earlier than blacks in America." "In South Africa, unlike the U.S., they have a 70-80% voter turnout." "The scholar from Chile reminded us to be sensitive to the way we use the term America. They too use the term America to refer to their part of the world."
"When the topic of the new European Union was raised, both scholars (from the Czech Republic and Slovakia) said that the EU is a great concept that once fully developed will be a very powerful union. However, the economic gap between countries across Europe makes it extremely difficult for people in smaller European countries to initiate themselves into the Union." "In regards to Slovakian perspectives on Americans, it is interesting to know that Americans are admired for our jurisprudence, pragmatism, technological advancements, openness, and the offer of humanitarian aid to less-prosperous countries (which is probably just about everywhere else in the world). However, Americans are blamed for being the pioneer and leader of the mass globalization in the present." "From the Indonesian scholar I learned that they have a short history leading up to a democratic system. It was very interesting to learn that Indonesia is a Muslim country." "As the Taiwanese scholar aptly concluded, 'The 21st century is the globalization century. It is important for Americans to step down from the all-American perspective and look at the world with a more open and modest mindset.'"
A Chinese-American student wrote, "Moving to the United States was a giant step forward for me. I was very empathetic when Dr. Wang (a Chinese Fulbrighter) shared the fact that he greatly appreciates the freedom of speech here. The other two characteristics Scholar Wang pointed out were U.S. peoples' solid jurisdiction system and the strong sense of patriotism. I recall my grandparents' incessant questioning of the reason why people in the United States can be so patriotic even without a rigid and explicit campaign of government propaganda. I believe that it is the freedom to individualism and the fact the U.S. is the current world leader that makes many Americans proud of their country."
My hope is that through these interactive experiences with individuals from around the world, students will learn about many countries, some of which they have barely heard of before. Then when they hear about these places in the news, they will identify them with the Fulbright Scholar they have met and feel some human contact. Cultural breakthroughs happen, such as the seminar where a Japanese Fulbright Scholar spoke of the surprise felt by her countrymen when they learned that Americans compared September 11th to Pearl Harbor -- while Japanese compared it to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No one in the room had thought of this before. Such insights allow us to "see ourselves as others see us" and help to combat the tendency to oversimplify the world into us and them.
Published: Monday, April 19, 2004
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