Backwards, primitive, war torn, different: Common words used by punditry and mainstream media to describe the myriad of different people living in the Middle East. But after a March 15 video chat with students at an international school in Saudi Arabia, girls in Christine Valentino Thurber’s 10th-grade social studies class learned a deeper lesson: That we’re not so different after all.
“We had a lot of similarities,” said Erin, a 15-year-old OHS student.
“They knew so much more of us than we knew of them,” another student, Emily remarked. “They had an understanding of what our culture was.”
“It opened our minds to the outside world,” their classmate Kendra said. “I felt like it broke a lot of the stereotypes of what we think and what we perceive to be how it is over there.”
For roughly 15 years now, and working through the non-profit NGO Global Nomads, Thurber has treated her pupils to videoconferences with students in countries all over the world, including South Africa, Haiti, Afghanistan and more. This is the third time in as many years that her class has spoken to students in Saudi Arabia.
“They always surprise me with what comes out of it,” Thurber said of the chats. “Each one is different.”
Because of gender segregation laws in the secretive, oil-rich kingdom, only the girls in Thurber’s class could take part, but despite the restrictions, the Oceanside students, speaking after fact, seemed to gain a more in-depth understanding of how different cultures interact, the disconnect between reality and what is portrayed in western media of countries outside the United States and the common threads that tie us all together.
Breaking stereotypes was a common theme as the girls discussed their findings from the chats, and American media was often cited as a chief culprit in spreading a reductive view of the world.
“I feel like the news has a big impact on that,” Kendra said. “Personally, it’s sad to say, but the way the news shows it, I thought the Middle East was all just a warzone.”
“It was scary walking into it, and seeing how much I didn’t know,” Emily added.
The solution, the students came to, was to take what they hear or see about other countries with a grain of salt, and to do their own research independently.
“Now that I saw how close minded I was about this specific topic, when something is presented to me I would not just take anyone’s word for it,” Emily said. “I would do my own research on it to make sure what they’re saying is true, and build my own thoughts and beliefs around what they said.”
“Not only has it made me want to explore more of the Middle East, the news tends to mix stuff around and make things seem worse just to get views.” Kendra said. “Obviously it’s not a reliable source.”
According to Thurber, what the students seemed to have taken away from the chats was all part of the plan, “I’m hoping they get to see the world in a more realistic stance,” she explained. “I hope it sparks their interest in social studies and improves their skills for communicating with other people.”
And cutting to the core of what makes such stereotype-breaking interactions possible, another classmate, Phoebe said, “People always say kids our age are obsessed with technology, but it just shows how well it can connect us.”