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UT Austin International Office

Innovative Program Brings Young Iraqi Leaders to Austin for Cultural Exchange


23 August 2013

CULTURAL EXCHANGE EXPERIENCES are important for upcoming universal leaders, so the International Office for the University of Texas at Austin created an opportunity for Iraqi students to travel to the United States to increase their cultural knowledge.

“Now I am not an Easterner or a Westerner, I’m in the middle,” Noor Hameed said. “Meeting so many different people, especially Americans, I’ve realized that no matter where we come from, we are all just people.”

Noor Hameed is a Baghdad University student, and a participant in the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP) sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Noor was one of 24 Iraqi college students who traveled to The University of Texas at Austin for a four week summer program designed by the University to focus on U.S. law and government.

Students arrived in Washington D.C. for a welcome workshop on July 29, then traveled to Austin for interactive classes and local excursions designed to familiarize them with U.S. culture, including a weekend trip to the border town of El Paso.

While on campus in Austin, local civil rights attorney and university instructor, Jim Harrington, led several classroom discussions on legal issues in Texas. Sessions culminated in student presentations on freedom of the press, religious freedom, criminal justice, women’s rights and equal rights for racial and ethnic minorities.

Students also had the opportunity to design a mural that captured their Texas experiences. Austin muralist Raul Valdez guided the students in bringing their vision to life. The creation pictured above was inspired by the quote “I am the universe in human form.”

“I enjoyed the chance to learn about American culture, as well as to meet a diverse group of people from my home country,” Hameed shared. “I want to return to Austin after completing my studies next year.”

The weekend trip to El Paso stood out as a favorite experience for Lubna Ruchdy.

“The people and the food were amazing – it felt like home,” Ruchdy said. “And during our entire time in the U.S., everyone has been so welcoming—more than I had even anticipated.”

Ruchdy also enjoyed the classroom component of the IYLEP program, especially the lectures and discussion with Jim Harrington.

“I have a huge passion for law and loved that I could speak my mind during our discussions with Mr. Harrington,” Ruchdy said. “It was very interesting to learn about the U.S. system of state and federal government, about how they are different but work together harmoniously.”

Dalia Salam appreciated learning about the history of race in the U.S. and how far the country has come on these issues.

“To learn how differently black people were treated in the past, to now having a black president, it is really amazing,” Salam said.

Additionally, Salam was moved by the group’s visit to a program for Mexican immigrants in El Paso.

“It was so inspiring to know this house was started by a young person and to see all the work they are doing there to help Mexican refugees,” Salam said.

Like Ruchdy, Salam also appreciated the free-flowing class discussions.

“This was different than many of our classes in Iraq,” Salam expressed. “Here we were allowed to really say what we think!”

Hameed was also moved by the hearts of people they met while exploring Austin.

“One of my favorite things was the bike cab I took downtown with one of my new friends from class,” Hameed said. “Our driver was from Jamaica – we had a short but very fun ride with him!”

Emily Pulley is a Program Coordinator for the UT International Office, and she is very enthusiastic about the effects of these programs on the students’ lives.

“It is my deep hope that the conversations, experiences and new ideas shared here will live on as these students return to Iraq. It was an honor to work with such intelligent, passionate and fun students,” Pulley concluded. “I believe we will see many of these individuals changing lives worldwide.”

By Angie Pastorek

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