By Anita Kozakewicz and Kathleen Petty (Photo by Tim Hanger)

It all began in an Osher class titled “The Big Questions.” One of us took the class “because I’m always looking for big answers” (Anita). The other (Kathleen) was looking forward to a class of free-flowing ideas. Little did we know then what an unexpected opportunity was coming our way!

The class was led by Dan Smith and Jacquelyn Pogue of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Dr. Smith is a professor of religious studies at VCU and Ms. Pogue is director of Richmond Action Dialogues and training director of the Dialogue Forum at VCU where she focuses much of her work on dialogue as a tool for transformation.

The format of the class included a presentation by Dr. Smith followed by small-group discussions of the presentation. The break-out groups were introduced to the “café conversation” type of dialogue which ensures that all participants have an opportunity to speak as well as listen. The difference between discussion and dialogue is that dialogue is a process requiring that certain rules be followed. One rule is that participants may speak only when they are holding a “talking object.” This can be anything from a tennis ball to a simple twig.

It was during this class that Ms. Pogue made us aware of the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP) at VCU and its need for facilitators.  Would any Osher class members be interested in facilitating after a bit of training? We responded with a “big yes” to this “big question” and volunteered to participate this past summer.  Under this program, twenty-five young men and women came to VCU from every corner of Iraq. They had not met each other previously, most had never left their country before, had never seen an ocean, and were eager to know each other and their American counterparts.

This program is funded by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and has an academic component, according to VCU Mass Communications Professor Jeff South.   For example, the Iraqi students were integrated with VCU students for an intensive study of social media, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The class met three hours a day, four days a week, in July. Among other assignments, the students formed  teams to develop a promotional campaign for one of nine local nonprofit groups ranging from Read Aloud Virginia to The Daily Planet.

Attending the public presentation of the finished campaigns we were completely blown away by the creative and professional presentations.  Representatives of the nonprofits were present and were enthusiastic and vocal in their gratitude for the work done on their behalf.

When not in class, the Iraqi students participated in activities in the Richmond area.  They explored the area’s cultural and historical sites and witnessed a reenactment of Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech at St. John’s Church. They also had fun, including a Saturday spent at Busch Gardens.  They learned the importance of volunteer work by volunteering on a regular, scheduled basis at the Peter Paul Development Center. Witnessing the Iraqi students’ last day at the Center, we Osher students were moved by the genuine mutual affection the children and Iraqis expressed for each other.

The integration of academics, culture and fun opened the Iraqi students’ eyes and minds to a new and different culture. Their presence also helped to dispel stereotypical images of Iraqi men and women.

While the Iraqi students learned from their peers and professors, they also learned from two enthusiastic Osher members, and we from them!