Youness M. was no stranger to exchange. So, when his professor at Hassan II University told him about the Women’s Leadership Virtual Exchange, a partnered virtual exchange course with Kennesaw State University, he leaped at the opportunity to build upon his experience. Youness took part in the virtual exchange in 2020 while the coronavirus pandemic left many people across the world feeling more isolated than ever before. He was fortunate to discover an opportunity for a deeper look at the American mindset and culture.
Youness’ virtual exchange experience was not immune to the challenges and disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. He encountered difficulties planning and connecting with others through virtual programs, but these challenges helped him understand the true value of virtual exchange. In Youness’ opinion, virtual exchange was one of the few positive opportunities to come out of the pandemic because young people could rely on technology to connect with others. Moreover, the virtual exchange experience emphasized how humanity is better off when we understand and empathize with one another more. “If you’re sick, you’re sick regardless of what culture you belong to. These are issues we should be united in dealing with. We are really not all that different...we are really the same.”
Youness had the opportunity to connect with international peers over important issues impacting women, and in turn learned larger lessons about humanity. Youness discovered how much more Moroccan and American students can learn about one another, especially relating to women’s issues. For example, the participating students realized the similarities in unpaid work that many women are responsible for in both cultures, something the Moroccan students were not aware of. The American students provided detail on the burdens that American women still carry, which were exacerbated by the pandemic. While not unique, this lack of information about international peers demonstrated the need for more virtual exchange programs to further develop an appreciation for other cultures.
Youness likes to use a food analogy to explain why cultural differences should be appreciated: “Food in its essence is nourishment, but we all have different food. If you eat the same thing all the time, all year, all your life, you will get bored. Humanity in its essence is the same – the difference in culture does not make one inferior or better, it is exciting, it is all about how you see it.” Youness believes these programs change who you are as a person. “When you communicate with people who are different than you, you start to think differently, see different shades to issues.” Even during a global pandemic, virtual exchange proved to be a powerful tool to learn with and from international peers.
Youness just finished the first year of his Moroccan- American studies master’s program and his exchange experience is still pertinent to his studies now. He hopes to research the issue and boundaries between freedom of speech and online moderation, and how to solve the problem of disinformation. He is passionate about finding a tenable solution to moderating the internet while balancing the right of freedom of speech, an aspiration that was strengthened by his virtual exchange experience.
Hassan II University of Casablanca and Kennesaw State University’s Women’s Leadership Virtual Exchange is supported by the Stevens Initiative, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, with funding provided by the U.S. Government, and is administered by the Aspen Institute. The Stevens Initiative is also supported by the Bezos Family Foundation and the governments of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.