A Shared Passion for Social Change: An Interview with Soliya Connect Program Participants
Soliya's Connect Program
Josie is an International Affairs and Chinese major at Western Kentucky University in the United States, and Sara is an English Major at the University of Benghazi in Libya. In this interview, they share their experience with Soliya's Connect Program, an eight-week virtual exchange program in which participants explore key global issues with fellow group members through a series of facilitated discussions, readings, and an independent project. Josie and Sara reflect on their online learning journey, discovering surprising cultural similarities and celebrating differences.
How did you first hear about the Connect Program?
Josie C.: My university professor invited me to participate in the Connect Program as part of my International Affairs Seminar course. I thought it was a good opportunity for people like myself studying international affairs to have an international experience so I decided to join.
Sara B.: I was offered the opportunity to participate in the Connect Program by my university professor. I’m glad I was able to join my global peers and advance my interpersonal skills. Virtual exchange programs are not well-known in my community, and not many people know that these programs exist.
What were your expectations before you joined the Connect Program?
Josie: I expected the sessions to center around politics, similar[ly] to my university courses. As the program progressed, I noticed that the conversations were around more diverse topics. I ended up learning a lot about people’s everyday lives and having social conversations that are different from a typical classroom setting.
Sara: I was concerned that other participants will judge me because I’m Muslim and I wear the veil, but no one ever made me feel judged. Instead, I discovered that the Connect Program was a safe space for all participants in my group to engage with one another and embrace differences as opportunities to learn. I felt included, welcomed, and valued by my group members and grew more comfortable with bringing more of my true self to the room each week.
What skills did you gain through your participation in the Connect Program?
Josie: I felt a shift in my communication as I started engaging with other participants. I was communicating with peers from different cultures across different time zones. Everyone came to the sessions with the intention to learn from each other and share their views. There was mutual respect between us, which paved the way for our group to have meaningful conversations.
Sara: The Connect Program experience helped me improve my communication and learn how to ask questions confidently. I feel like I’m able to apply these skills in my role as a Supply Chain Associate. By being a good listener in my daily interactions, I am better at understanding the needs of my international partners. I am more aware of my role as a communicator in my interactions.
I discovered that the Connect Program was a safe space for all participants in my group to engage with one another and embrace differences as opportunities to learn. I felt included, welcomed, and valued by my group members and grew more comfortable with bringing more of my true self to the room each week.
The Connect Program brings together participants from around the world to engage constructively across differences. How was your experience engaging with difference?
Josie: One of the most important things I learned through the Connect Program is that differences are “okay” and they are a source of depth in conversations rather than conflict. I was surprised to discover more similarities than differences with students from the Middle East and North Africa. I learned that we are a lot more connected than apart. I also realized that I have a different experience from my fellow American peers, even though we share the same country. That is something that I didn’t expect.
Sara: I realized that my group members knew very little about my country. I held myself accountable for challenging the representation of Libya in the media, sharing our culture through local stories. Through these stories l discovered that we had similar struggles and aspired for the same things, even though we were from different countries. Difference does not mean conflict, it means knowledge.
Where are you in your life at the moment?
Josie: Currently, I’m working on my thesis, which discusses the situation and perception of working women in Taiwan. This particular interest was further grounded thanks to my participation in the Connect Program. When I was participating in the Connect Program, I was kind of unsure about my topic choice. As I got exposed to the real-life experiences of my peers, I was inspired to go in the same direction for my research. I pulled away from things that are government-focused to look at the regular experiences of people and dive deeper into everyday culture.
Sara: I’m working as a Supply Chain Associate in the healthcare sector. My Connect Program experience cultivated my interest in volunteering as a way to give back to my community and create opportunities for youth in my country. I’m volunteering at the Libyan Foreign Committee in the House of Representatives to initiate potential partnerships with NGOs to plan more virtual exchange programs and learning activities for youth in Libya.
Where would you like to see yourself in the future?
Josie: I would like to see myself working in the research field with an international organization or a think tank, advising stakeholders to take action and find solutions to shared problems.
Sara: Looking to the future, I hope to have more opportunities to engage through virtual exchange. I recently completed my practicum as a dialogue facilitator through Soliya’s Facilitation Training Program. I’m now preparing myself to lead future young people’s journeys with Soliya and looking for new opportunities to apply my new skills and knowledge to inspire change.
One of the most important things I learned is that differences are “okay” and they are a source of depth in conversations rather than conflict. I was surprised to discover more similarities than differences with students from the Middle East and North Africa. I learned that we are a lot more connected than apart.
What advice would you give to future Connect Program participants?
Josie: The Connect Program is a good opportunity for young people to have an international experience especially if they can’t access or afford an exchange experience abroad. I advise future students to make the most out of their experience by not being shy. If I had spoken up a little bit more at the first meetings, I could have created even more connections.
Sara: I would like to tell future participants not to underestimate this eye-opening experience. The Connect Program is a great opportunity. They should take advantage of the program to learn more about cultures and their struggles. We all share common issues that worry us such as the climate change.
If you are interested in bringing this program to your institution, complete this form.
Connect Program is implemented by Soliya and is supported by the J. Christopher Stevens Virtual Exchange Initiative (JCSVEI). JCSVEI is a U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs program administered by the Aspen Institute.