Margaret Poe begins the discussion with group members in the Middle East and U.S. over webcam.
Margaret Poe, a junior from Cedar Falls, Iowa, sat in the Resource Center of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication every Tuesday for eight weeks this fall, chatting over webcam with students from both the Middle East and the United States.
“So, how was your weekend?” she asked over webcam one morning.
Despite the relaxed demeanor of their conversation, these students aren’t just friends. In fact, Poe is in the chat room as a facilitator to encourage conversation for members of the Soliya program. And weekend fun isn’t their only topic of conversation.
The Soliya program is an initiative to increase communication, and subsequently understanding, between college students in the Middle East and the United States. Some of the universities involved in the program include The University of Iowa, the American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, American University in Cairo, Egypt, and the University of North Florida. The students from these universities meet once a week on the web in a chat room with webcam capabilities, allowing students to see and hear one another.
Groups usually include five to 10 students from the U.S. or Middle East. Facilitators, such as Poe, help generate conversation and keep the content from turning sour.
Poe got involved in the project in the fall semester of 2005 as a participant. She was one of several students in the J-MC School’s Media and Terrorism class to sign up that semester. Professor Dan Berkowitz gave the students the option to either participate in the program or do a project. Poe said she signed up for Soliya because she was interested in the Middle East, but didn’t know a lot about the region.
“I liked it a lot, even though we met at eight o’clock in the morning,” she said. “I like having political conversations, so this was a way to have one every week.”
Poe recalls learning that first semester how governments of the Middle East work. In particular, she was surprised that the Middle Eastern students were so religious.
“It is hard to understand the importance of religion to them, especially when you consider the stereotype that their religiousness is the problem,” she said. “It is so different to see young people to whom religion is so important.”
At the end of that semester, Poe was chosen to be a facilitator. After about 16 hours of training over webcam in the spring, she began facilitating this fall.
She co-facilitates with a male student from the American University in Cairo, Egypt. Their group includes three students from Egypt, four students studying in America, and one studying at the American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. The group is really motivated to talk, Poe said, making her job a little easier. However, she also has to write weekly summaries of the meeting that include each student’s participation or lack thereof.
“It is kind of important because these students are taking it for a class, for a grade,” Poe said.
Liza Chambers, Soliya’s executive director, said that despite all the work Poe has to do, she is quite good at it.
“Margaret is intelligent, quick on her feet, good at formulating thoughtful questions, perceptive about group dynamics, and aware of her own strengths and weaknesses,” Chambers said.
Although facilitating Soliya may be a lot of work, Poe said that she has learned a lot that will help her as a journalist.
“You can read Middle Eastern publications, but you won’t understand the people behind the ideas,” she said. “It is crucial to journalism because you realize that there aren’t just two perspectives, the Middle Eastern and the U.S. You realize there are more perspectives within each group.”
Soliya doesn’t just affect students’ awareness of public opinions; it also helps them identify their own beliefs, Chambers said.
“As a journalist, you are striving to be as impartial and unbiased as possible, so building self-awareness about one’s own biases and learning not to have these biases affect your behavior would also be helpful,” she said.
Poe jotted down notes about the participants’ attendance and involvement in the conversation that day in the resource center. She and her co-facilitator broke the participants off into groups to discuss the core problems that exist between the U.S. and the Middle East.
“Although we can identify similarities between the U.S. and the Middle East, it is really important to recognize the differences between our countries,” Poe said. “Soliya provides an authentic understanding of those differences and similarities.”
Maria Magner, a senior from Waukon, Iowa, participated in the Soliya program in the Spring 2006 semester. She collaborated with Mary Nashad of Cairo, Egypt, and wrote an article titled “The Global Communication Revolution” on the power of connection that the Internet provides in the Soliya program. The article was published on the Common Ground News Service website on June 20.