SOE News

Graduate students exchange ideas with international visitors

When they entered the classroom for the first time this semester, the 12 graduate students in Associate Professor Rebecca New’s seminar on “Culture, Child Development, and Education” expected to hear about the usual first-day-of-class topics—overview of the syllabus, descriptions of assignments, and so on. They quickly realized that they needed to revise those expectations.

Professor New greeted her students by announcing that they were about to engage in an experience that would help them understand the possibilities and challenges that culture presents for learning and development.

She asked each student to write on an index card his or her name and one area of professional expertise in which the student felt qualified to have an intelligent conversation.  With the cards turned outward identifying areas such as “teaching elementary children,” “special education,” “autism” and “critical multicultural education,” the students then received a delegation of 12 international visitors from Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Education.   

After a few words of welcome and introduction, the students and visitors formed small conversation groups. With the assistance of translators, they began a lively exchange of ideas about education and culture in the two countries.

“The visitors were very eager to hear about the structure of the public education system In the United States,” said Amy Senta, a former elementary teacher now enrolled in the School’s Master of Arts in Education program, specializing in the area of Culture, Curriculum and Change. 

“After discussing the education systems in both countries, perhaps the most profound conclusion we reached was that both countries face similar challenges,” she said.

“Both countries have an achievement gap between different groups of students,” she noted. “But the diversity of students here in the United States is much greater than the diversity of students in Saudi Arabia.”

During the conversations, it became clear that the Saudi Arabians have a different concept of multicultural education than that held by many UNC students, Senta noted.

“Our visitors said that they think of multicultural education as an effort to educate students about various cultures,” she explained. “But the UNC students in my discussion group thought of it as an approach where teachers are committed to social justice.”

Another challenge that educators in both countries face is working with parents regarding their children’s education, Senta added.

Most of the students in New’s seminar are doctoral students with extensive professional experience in a variety of educational and research settings. As such, they served as valuable resources for members of the delegation who wanted to know more about U.S. education. 

“The visitors in my group wanted to know in particular about three topics,” said doctoral student Betsy Humphreys. “Those topics were: the impact of the No Child Left Behind legislation, the inclusion of children with special needs in our classrooms and the American system for requiring teachers to participate in ongoing professional development.”

As evidenced by the request for “please, just one more question!”, the Saudi visitors indicated  that they found the discussion very informative and friendly and especially appreciated the rare opportunity to talk directly with American students in a “real” classroom setting.

The Saudi visitors were not the only ones who learned from their encounters with UNC students.    

“For the students, it was an incredible experience,” Senta said. “This was our first week of class and my first experience as a graduate student at UNC. For me, it set the stage in a very powerful way for my thinking about culture, education and my own experiences in education.”

“There was a mutual respect among all of us,” Humphreys noted. “For me personally, it was very exciting and a real privilege to communicate through a translator with people living in an entirely different part of the world with an entirely different culture and entirely different customs, values and beliefs.  I wish we had had more time for extended dialogue.” 

For Professor New, it was an important opportunity, not only to host an international delegation but also to give her students first-hand experience with the impact of culture.   

“I was not expecting the full delegation to attend the class and had to think quickly about how best to welcome them all and also to insure that their visit was of value to the students,” she said. “Of course I was also anxious about how the students would respond, although that concern disappeared as the conversations quickly became intense discussions.”

“One of my goals is to help my students understand that culture is not just an intriguing body of knowledge, but also that culture manifests itself in human learning and development,” New added. “This was an exciting opportunity to demonstrate that principle and to illustrate the potentials of cultural exchanges.”   

The visit of the Saudi delegation was sponsored by the International Visitor Leadership Program, which is affiliated with the U.S. Department of State. While at the School of Education, the Saudi delegation also met with Interim Dean Jill Fitzgerald and several faculty members to discuss issues such as curriculum and program reform to accommodate students with special needs, pre-service and in-service teacher training, and strategies for effective assessment and evaluation.

“These issues have a global dimension,” said Professor Xue Lan Rong, who coordinated this event. “Solutions for these issues should come from the best educators who have knowledge and understanding of other nations and cultures.”

To provide students and faculty with international experiences and to nurture relationships with other countries, the School of Education has received numerous foreign educational delegations in recent years, including multi-nation delegations from North Africa and the Middle East as well as single-nation delegations from China, Georgia, Iraq, Jordan, Singapore and Vietnam.