The Links of Language: Who is the Student and Who is the Teacher?
Rachel With the considerable amount of time we spend at the TYO center, sometimes I think of my time with my university students at An-Najah University as a second window into life in Palestine. After all, here as in the rest of the world, the people of this demographic are the thinkers, the activists, the ones who know the trends and the ones who will shape the future. Intercultural connections are an enormous component of the International Internship Program, and as much as my students may be learning about business skills and practicing their English with me, it’s often the cultural snapshots I get from them that I think are the most enlightening. Although I studied this region extensively in school, I could never really have known what living in Palestine was like until I interacted with my students. The focus of our class is on conversational English and professional development, so in addition to covering CV’s, interviews, and professional demeanor, we spend a lot of time talking to each other. Of course, we don’t discuss politics in my class, but through my discussions with them, I’ve seen glimpses of the struggles they face and the ways that their lives are circumscribed by the boundaries of the political situation, religion, and culture in ways that I have never experienced. Most interesting to me, however, are the little things I learn that humanize the situation and make their stories transcend their context. The popularity of soccer in the Middle East is pretty well known, for example, but I was surprised to learn that the WWF is also a favorite, and that The Rock is a local celebrity. The most popular musician amongst my students isn’t Amr Diab or Fayrouz, it’s Eminem (although they are divided in their opinions of his new album). Learning this kind of information about my students is my favorite part about my Najah classes because sharing it with my friends and family at home is the surest way to illustrate that the students of Palestine aren’t just statistics or footnotes in a larger narrative of conflict; they are ordinary, intelligent, multi-dimensional people who are so similar to us.
In recent years, popular media has revelled at the unprecedented rates of unemployment in the occupied territories. Many of these sources go on in a similar fashion, summarizing elements of a successful economy in relation to a conflict-bearing environment. While these recommendations are certainly valid, and perhaps even succeed in mobilizing readers, it is easy to get lost in the abstract notions of “investing in infrastructure” and “encouraging entrepreneurship." While a long-term solution will certainly require such intensive efforts, we’re attempting to do what we can for the people affected by unemployment in the short term. In our Najah classes, we invest directly in our students’ futures by empowering them to succeed professionally despite the challenges they will face.
In Professional Competency and Conversational English, one of the three classes I teach as an intern at TYO, it was immediately apparent that the professional skills young Americans learn in summers between high-school is not a universal adolescent experience. Stepping into the role of teaching a class of peers was daunting. Why did my Western education suddenly situate me as an expert on professional competence? This question became less and less relevant, as I realized that the interests of my students required much broader focus than linear lectures explaining a CV or cover letter. The emphasis in the class is certainly on conversational English, as most days are spent talking about the pains of job searching and the interview process. While demographics like the staggering rate of unemployment amongst Palestinian youth communicate the dire need for change, a conversation with one of these statistics demonstrates the ambition and desire for this change.
Yesterday in my Najah professional competency and English conversation class, which I teach as a part of the International Internship Program here at TYO, my students undertook a creative writing task in which they were required to write their own news story. For me, this activity brought to light a plethora of issues, such as the abyss that many people feel represents retirement in Palestine, the lack of entertainment for children, and the gradual transformation of simple village societies. Amongst these articles were also some that revealed unique character traits, from a passion for reading to a desire for those who can sing to share their voices with the world.
However, one student’s article really stood out to me as one that exemplifies my overall experience of working with Palestinian university students. His article focused on the incapacitating lack of opportunity within Palestine, which drives the most talented and brilliant minds away to Dubai, UAE, Jordan and elsewhere. As a qualified engineer, his potential to find a high salary job should be plentiful, and certainly would be if he had grown up in the United Kingdom or USA. However, as a Palestinian, he finds himself forced to leave his family and homeland in order to work for wages that are much less than he deserves, in countries that are unfamiliar and sometimes extremely hostile.
Since I started teaching at An-Najah I have seen first hand that there is no lack of talent here, the students are no less intelligent or ambitious than students in the West. The only difference is that in order to achieve their ultimate goals they must have an excessive amount of determination and passion that will push them to find opportunities that politics has prevented them from reaching.
Coming into my classroom at An-Najah University as a fresh TYO intern, I found that most of my intermediate students already spoke English fairly well. They had gone through years of intensive verb conjugation, sentence structure and vocabulary courses, and could fairly easily read an English novel. However, though on paper they were proficient in English, there were also several obvious holes in their education. First, in many cases, my students had never had the opportunity to converse with a native English speaker before. Though they had read the books and studied hard, my students simply did not have the experience necessary to follow the fast past colloquialism filled dialect of someone who had been speaking English all their life. Second, I found that prior to taking my class, the students lacked knowledge regarding business etiquette. From concepts as simple as dressing to impress, to more complex ideas such as resume and cover letter writing, they had simply never been given adequate instruction on how to function within the workplace and while on the job-hunt. I feel that participation in my English language course helped bridge those gaps. Students gained the invaluable opportunity to ask questions, learn about another culture, improve their chances for a job and enhance their English skills all in one fell swoop.
Additionally, though my students learnt a lot from me, I have also learnt a lot from them. Not only have they taught me about the many nuances of Palestinian culture, but also about what it means to be a university student in this society. They have shared their trials with me and also confided their successes. I feel truly privileged that my students allowed me the opportunity to peer through this window into their lives and bond with them. In the end, I feel that my course functioned on two complementary levels. On the first, it taught students the valuable business skills employers are looking for within today’s competitive job market. On the second, and possibly even more importantly, it went one step further in its use of cross-cultural exchange as a method of learning.