Raise Your Voice

  laire prepares students at An Najah National University for a debate

Whenever I am in the lecture hall at An-Najah National University, assisting with Professor Dweikat’s leadership course, I always reflect upon my university education and compare it to that of the students in front of me. As a graduate from a small liberal arts college, I never experienced what it felt like to be in a class with more than 50 peers. It is difficult for me to imagine the number of distractions and challenges built into this type of learning environment. The class consists of mostly freshmen and sophomores, and they are still learning strategies and best practices to ensure their academic success. By emphasizing small group work and giving students the opportunity to practice public speaking skills, I have witnessed how these students have matured, thought critically about their education, and acquired the confidence to share their perspectives with others.

For the past couple of weeks, we have done an exercise in which the students participate in a mock election for their local municipalities. Students were asked to think about the challenges that their communities face and come up with creative solutions to these problems. Compared to the beginning of the session when students were intimidated to share their ideas with the class, I witnessed how impassioned they became when engaging in a topic that is so significant to their lives. Students cited the following aspects of their community that they hope to change or improve: a lack of reliable electricity, overcrowding, access to water, obsolete infrastructure, a lack of critical thinking in the education system, urban planning, and investment in human capital. Students not only thought critically about their communities’ needs, but they also had the courage to volunteer to speak in front of the class about their own ideas to improve these conditions. Students were motivated because they were able to see a direct link between this exercise and their lives – a link that is often missing from their studies, according to the students.

In a class of 150 students, it is easy to get lost in the crowd. Participation is often overlooked in a class of this size, and Jade and I have made a point to incorporate small group work into every class so that students’ voices can be heard. At the beginning of the session, students were uncomfortable speaking, even in small groups. After being in gender-segregated schools[1] for the majority of their education, the students were reluctant to work with the opposite sex. This course is a graduation requirement for all disciplines, and students were also hesitant to work with new people. Jade and I had to walk around the classroom in order to explicitly guide groups in how to introduce themselves and feel comfortable working with new peers. Now, I see a tangible change in students’ attitudes. They have matured and willingly take the initiative to participate in new group situations. To an American, this may seem like a small step forward. But for a Palestinian, the transition from secondary school to university is wrought with challenges based on institutionalized gender segregation.

The process of forming and expressing their opinions in small groups has given students the confidence to share and defend their perspectives in front of the entire class. Since students created a platform for the mock municipality elections, we challenged them to participate in a debate. For many students, this was the first time being exposed to a formal debate style. After two weeks of preparation, students were put to the test to think critically, logically, and spontaneously. The students who bravely volunteered demonstrated their ability to do so, and they garnered the respect of their classmates and professor for their confidence and ability to adapt under pressure. I was proud when certain students who had been visibly nervous in previous classes took the microphone and passionately defended their platforms. The entire class was silent and engaged during the debate, and several students in the audience proposed to do a cross-examination of candidates without being prompted by us.

Throughout this leadership course, students have found their voices. They are confident in their ability to think independently and succeed in a new environment. Although it would be unrealistic to imagine that one leadership course will transform over 300 underclassmen into leaders today, I am confident when I say that these students now have a solid foundation to become leaders in various aspects of their lives. I know that one day, several of these students will raise their voices and make significant contributions to the future Palestine.

[1] Rubenberg, Cheryl. Palestinian women: Patriarchy and resistance in the West Bank. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001.

-Claire is a Fall 2014 International Intern at TYO

This program is funded by the Abdel Hameed Shoman Foundation (AHSF)