Virtual Exchange Inspires Youth Political Awareness in New York and Cairo
LaGuardia Community College’s Global Scholars Achieving Career Success
A student body president from one of America’s top community colleges and a star architecture student in Cairo, Egypt, connected through LaGuardia Community College’s Global Scholars Achieving Career Success. This virtual exchange helped ignite the fire of youth activism within the students through comparisons and contrasts between inequality in Egypt and the U.S.
Guttman Community College student Bashir is wise beyond his years. While talking about youth activism and political awareness, he cites a popular African proverb, “The branch of the tree can only be bent when it’s young, but when it’s old you have to break it.” Essentially, young people have a greater capacity for open-mindedness that diminishes with age. Both Bashir and American University in Cairo (AUC) student Aya have gone through a transformative experience together while part of Global Scholars Achieving Career Success (GSACS), a virtual exchange program that pairs classes in New York with classes in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and the Palestinian Territories to explore and develop solutions to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) together. Bashir and Aya’s proverbial “branches” are spry and green indeed, as virtual exchange “bent” them towards increased awareness of inequalities common across global societies.
Bashir and Aya were part of a class-to-class GSACS exchange (although they worked in different smaller groups), in which they conducted interviews with small shop owners in New York City and Cairo to explore UN SDG #10, reducing inequality.
Bashir had preconceived notions about Aya’s class before they even met. He assumed that most of the architecture students from Egypt would be men, due to what he perceived as “the strict educational access and resources for women in some parts of the world,” a perspective he shared with some of his U.S. classmates before having contact through virtual exchange with students in the Middle East and North Africa. However, he was pleasantly surprised to find that the entire class was comprised of women, and it dispelled the misconception that he had previously held about Egypt.
“We [immigrant and minority New Yorkers] are able to tell our own stories rather than somebody else doing it for us. So that’s where GSACS plays a key role, they gave us a space, a safe space, to be able to come with the research and express our thoughts as young scholars.”
Aya’s perspective as a woman in architecture proved to be indispensable to her project within the collaboration. She interviewed bookstore owners in downtown Cairo, an area that she and her classmates did not normally frequent, for reasons that included street harassment against women. Aya’s group noted this street harassment and applied a solution based on urban theorist Jane Jacobs’ concept of “eyes on the street” to increase foot traffic and make women and girls feel safer out in public. Jacobs’ “eyes on the street” intervention stresses that vibrant sidewalk life makes public thoroughfares safer because more people are watching out for each other. Aya and her teammates designed spaces near the bookstores for public readings, book club meetings, and other events to increase foot traffic that would make women feel safer visiting the book sellers.
By examining the issue of inequality in Cairo street life, Aya developed an activist approach to architecture that cemented her place as a politically aware and engaged citizen.
While Aya read theory from Jane Jacobs, an urbanist who lived most of her life in New York City, she got to know the actual practicalities of life in contemporary New York City from her partners at Guttman Community College. They taught her and her peers in Egypt about what a bodega is, a local convenience store that for many New Yorkers during the COVID-19 pandemic became a lifeline. Bashir and his classmates interviewed small shop and bodega owners in the Bronx, New York. These interviews helped Aya learn about minority-owned bodegas, their access to resources, especially during the pandemic, and their impact on the surrounding urban spaces. Aya summed up the value of what she learned from her Guttman colleagues through GSACS saying, “I think when I get exposed to different cultures, I become more understanding [of] other people’s lifestyles and habits. It also helps me appreciate our differences and how we can impact each other’s knowledge.”
“I think the program enhanced my critical thinking and problem-solving skills. It made me listen more and become more understanding and consider[ate] to people’s cultures, experiences, needs, etc. This will help me in the future to consider the impact of my designs in their contexts in addition to the impact [on] different people.”
Bashir also found immense value in his GSACS exchange with students in Egypt, who he collaborated with on his oral history interviews with small shop owners. Bashir explored how mainly minority-owned businesses were affected by the pandemic and took on even more debt through government loans. Of his oral history project he said, “We [immigrant and minority New Yorkers] are able to tell our own stories rather than somebody else doing it for us. So that’s where GSACS plays a key role, they gave us a space, a safe space, to be able to come with the research and express our thoughts as young scholars.” Bashir found the experience of compiling oral histories and sharing them with a global audience empowering. He used it to continue his own scholarship and activism, writing about GSACS for the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship competition, where he reached the semifinals. His GSACS professor also invited him to apply the storytelling skills he learned during his virtual exchange by contributing to an oral history book project called “Voices from the Heart of Gotham,” and he will soon be a published author. He also has started mentoring younger students on how to curate oral histories through My Brother’s Keeper.
Aya was also inspired by her experience with GSACS and U.S. colleagues to pursue a graduate degree in heritage architecture at either Stanford or Harvard University. She describes GSACS as being influential in her thinking about how to equitably apply her architecture skills: “I think the program enhanced my critical thinking and problem-solving skills. It made me listen more and become more understanding and consider[ate] to people’s cultures, experiences, needs, etc. This will help me in the future to consider the impact of my designs in their contexts in addition to the impact [on] different people.” This activist spirit will carry both Aya and Bashir through what are sure to be exciting futures.
Global Scholars Achieving Career Success is implemented by LaGuardia Community College 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.