Leadership program brings Iraqi students to VCU

Over the summer, 25 Iraqi exchange students developed social media strategies for nonprofit organizations in Richmond  during the Iraqi Young Leadership Exchange Program.
Over the summer, 25 Iraqi exchange students developed social media strategies for nonprofit organizations in Richmond during the Iraqi Young Leadership Exchange Program.

Caitlin Puffenberger
Contributing Writer

Karam Bassam signed up for the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program for many reasons: opportunity, experience, networking — and heavy metal.

“When we were in Washington they asked us what we’d like to do (while in the U.S.),” said Bassam, a third-year electronic management student at the University of Mosul in Mosul, Iraq. “I said I wanted to go to the Mayhem Heavy Metal Festival … It was a blast.”

Of course, head-banging and crowd-surfing were only a small part of the package for Bassam and his fellow participants.

Funded by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, IYLEP brings 100 Iraqi students to four U.S. universities each summer for intensive academic programs. For the last four years, 25 of those students have come to VCU’s School of Mass Communications to learn how to use social media for nonprofit organizations.

“It provides an opportunity for the internationalization of VCU,” said Amanda Velez, special programs coordinator for VCU’s Global Education Office. “The Iraqi students share classes with American students, so it provides an opportunity for cross-cultural learning. And the Iraqi students represent diverse ethnic, religious and linguistic backgrounds, so it’s a great opportunity for them to have a shared living experience as well.”

VCU also hosted students from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Malawi, Cote D’Ivoire, Beijing and Russia with three other summer programs: the Study of U.S. Institutes for Public Policy and Government Leadership, and two sessions of the American Studies Program.

This summer, the Iraqi students lived in the Gladding Residence Center, went to classes on the VCU campus and took trips across the state.

“It was one adventure after another,” said Alix Hines, a VCU graduate and one of the program’s mentors. “We went to Jumpology, we did a Segway tour of Richmond, we went to Virginia Beach …. We learned a lot from each other just going to eat together.”

That’s how Bassam ended up going to the heavy metal festival. But the program also had a rigorous academic component run by Marcus Messner, Ph.D., and Vivian Medina-Messner, two professors in the School of Mass Communications.

Messner said they began looking in the spring to nonprofits in central Virginia who needed help managing their social media strategy. On the first day of class, the students were divided into groups of four — two Iraqi students and two VCU students — and each group chose the nonprofit they wanted to work with. Some of this year’s clients included Arts in the Alley, St. John’s Church Foundation and the Garden Club of Virginia.

For the next few weeks, the students learned how to use social media for professional purposes, specifically for a nonprofit. Messner and Medina-Messner planned field trips and invited guest speakers to help the students.

“We’re really picking the guest speakers to help us run the program, so they need to have something to add to the program that goes beyond what we can teach,” Messner said.

This year’s speakers included representatives from Mobelux, a Richmond-based mobile media company, and the Gates Foundation, Messner said.

Each group applied skills they learned in different ways. Bassam’s group worked with Promises Preschool, a daycare run by Three Chopt Presbyterian Church.

“It was a challenge to create something they liked,” he said. “Their audience is limited because they’re a Christian preschool.” Ultimately his group focused on increasing posts on their Facebook page and updating their website.

After roughly three weeks of class, each group gave a social media strategy manual to its client and presented its work to a panel of field experts. The team that won first place this year worked with the St. John’s Church Foundation. Judges complimented the group on its creative take, especially their Twitter handle @ImPatrickHenry, a nod to St. John’s as the site of Henry’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death …” speech.

While their social media strategies made a lasting impact on the organizations they helped, the students may remember more of what they learned outside the classroom.

One student said her favorite part of the experience was the conflict resolution sessions led by a facilitator from Richmond Peace Education Center.

“We all gathered together and talked about what matters to us as human beings, about how to build peace,” said Hazha Ahmed Abdullah, an information technologies major from American University of Iraq in Sulaimani. “We’re like a family, and that’s going to stick with me forever.”

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