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Visiting Fulbright scholars open windows to the worldUCLA students Carmel Farzaneh, Austin Kassels and Wenxi Lin after hearing a presentation by a Fulbright scholar. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

Visiting Fulbright scholars open windows to the world

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By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

A course that invites foreign Fulbright scholars to speak about their countries and their views of the United States is highly popular among UCLA undergraduates.

UCLA International Institute, May 29, 2014 — Sometimes all it takes to change your perspective is to meet someone from another part of the world.

The UCLA International Institute regularly offers a one-credit Fiat Lux course designed to do just that: it broadens the perspective of undergraduate students by introducing them to people from around the world.

The course, “Perceptions of the U.S. Abroad: Discussions with Visiting Fulbright Scholars” offers short presentations by visiting foreign scholars, followed by lively question-and-answer session. Students learn about both the cultures of different countries and how those countries perceive the United States. The only requirements are to attend, to participate and to write a report about what they learn in each session.

Although only 17 percent of UCLA undergraduates study abroad, this course gives all undergraduates on campus the opportunity to gain a greater understanding of foreign nations.

Ann Kerr Adams, who spent a year abroad as an undergraduate at the American University of Beirut, has taught the class since early 2002. She designed and began teaching it within months of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Her enduring goal is build international awareness and understanding among UCLA students.

As the coordinator for the Visiting Fulbright Scholar Enrichment Program at the UCLA International Institute for over two decades, she supports the identical goal in the reverse direction. The program engages foreign Fulbright scholars in cultural activities in which they meet Americans and have an experience of everyday life in the United States. They are also invited to participate in her class and meet undergraduate U.S. students.

The world, in person

The highly popular course attracts undergraduate students from across North and South campus and is fully enrolled whenever it is offered (twice in an academic year). Each class is addressed by a junior or senior international Fulbright scholar in residence at UCLA or another higher education institution in Southern California, with an occasional invited speaker on a country of particular topical interest.

During the winter 2014 quarter at UCLA, “Perceptions of the U.S. Abroad” featured speakers from Egypt, Lebanon, Ukraine, Hungary, Italy, Argentina, Brazil, Tajikistan, Romania and Taiwan.

The first class featured three young Egyptian scholars, Ahmed Hamdem (Alexandria University), Eiman Elgewely (Alexandria University) and Mai Mogib (Cairo University), who spoke about their research on ancient Egyptian religion, the cultural and arts scene in Egypt prior to the revolution of 2011 and the current political situation in Egypt, respectively.

Another session with invited guest speaker Amandah Rizkallah (a veteran staff member of the Fulbright Scholar Enrichment Program and Ph.D. candidate at UCLA), featured an overview of modern Lebanese history and its complicated politics from the Ottoman period to the present day.

Occasionally a speaker actually addresses events in their country as they are happening. Such was the case of Oleksandra Kazymirska, a Fulbright scholar from Ukraine, who spoke to class days after protests on Maidan Square in Kyiv succeeded in forcing President Viktor Yanukovych from power.

Graduates consistently report that the class was their favorite undergraduate course. Several students shared their experience of the class in winter quarter.

“I found [the course] really interesting because I not only learned the point of view of scholars all over the world, but I also heard their perceptions of the U.S.,” commented international development studies Wenxi Lin of Guangzhou, China. She particularly enjoyed learning about speakers’ native countries and getting a sense of how they have adapted to life in the United States.

“Coming into this class, I already had a strong perception that the world is really one,” remarked Carmel Farzaneh, a communications studies major. “But hearing speakers who are young and intelligent share with us the stories of their lives and the history of their countries in such a meaningful way made me feel that connection in a stronger way.”

Reflecting on the impact of the class, Farzaneh said, “We get a good start here and then, when you hear the headlines in the news, you don't pass over them because you already have context, you understand — you've met someone and looked in their eyes who is closely related to and passionate about that issue.”

“It's really been eye-opening as an American,” said physiological sciences major Austin Kassels, who said the class made him feel that American society as a whole tends to be aloof to what is going on in the world.

Not only would both Farzaneh and Kassels take the class a second time if it was possible, Kassels came away with a new goal: "I want to go abroad. . . . I don't know where yet, I don't know when, but I know it’s going to happen and this class has definitely been a big inspiration."

Kassels likely expressed the feeling of most students in the class when he said, “Having people who have been there, who want to come and talk to us about the issues that affect practically every aspect of their lives — it's unlike any [course] I've had before.” Added Farzaneh, “I think it's very valuable and I would encourage anyone to try to grab on to an experience like this.”

Pictures, (top to bottom, left to right): Ahmed Hamden, Eiman Elgevely, Mai Mogib, Amandah Rizkallah, Oleksandra Kazymirska. (Photos: Peggy McInerny/UCLA).