Whitties get to ask questions of Iraqi students

Katie Combs

What are your impressions of Americans?

Do you see any improvements in your life since the fall of Saddam Hussein?

Are your daily activities impaired because of the war?

These are three of many questions that have been sent by Whitman students to students in Iraq.

Jyotsna Shivanandan, a senior politics major, and Paul Burdett, a senior philosophy major, have worked on a project designed to create intercultural dialogue by allowing Whitman students to ask questions of Iraqi students.

Topics ranged from questions about favorite sports and the nature of school syllabi to perception of the U.S. involvement in Iraq. The questions have been sent to Iraqi students at the American University in Sulaimani with the help of Mr. Nathan Musselman. Musselman, who Shivanandan and Burdett finally reached after scouring the Internet for potential resources, is the prefect and deputy to the chancellor at the school.

“Paul and I thought it would be cool to actually converse with people who lead the most similar lifestyle to us here in Whitman,” said Shivanandan in an e-mail. “We hope that talking with students in a war-affected region could bring the realities of war to life. Since we are mainly concerned with how civilian life has been affected by the war, we wanted our discussion with Iraqi students to include questions and queries that someone could not access in a scholarly journal or newspaper.”

The two Whitman students originally wanted to have a videoconference between Iraqi and American students, but the technology was not available. Once answers to their e-mails are received, Shivanandan and Burdett plan to post the responses across campus.

“Establishing communication between students in Iraq and Whitman is a unique way to learn about the effects of the war,” said Paul Burdett in an e-mail.

Shivanandan and Burdett solicited questions from Whitman students over the student listserv. Shivanadan was somewhat disappointed with the response.

“Paul and I assumed that the Whitman community would jump at the opportunity of starting a dialogue with Iraqi civilians,” she said. “But we were surprised at the lack of enthusiasm when very few people from the Whitman community replied to our e-mail sent to the listserv which asked for potential questions for Iraqi students.”

Burdett, however, attributed this to the listserv rather than a more general apathy on the part of Whitman students. “People who I talked to were usually really interested, but since a lot of people delete listserv e-mails, I think that our project never got the response that we felt it deserved,” he said.

The project is one of several exploring the Iraq conflict. Along with the flag memorial and student-led panel, the project stemmed from experiences in Politics 200, The Iraq War, a class taught by Professors Shampa Biswas and Bruce Magnusson.

According to Shivanandan, the class was quite valuable. “It was a great opportunity to learn about the decisions and controversies before the U.S. invaded Iraq, the war itself and post-war reconstruction efforts. The syllabus was structured in such a way that students were given the chance to read about different schools of thought and differing opinions before coming to a conclusion about the war.”

“It has been great,” Burdett said in an e-mail. “The students have all made the effort to come to class prepared and ready to throw down their opinions. The professors are really bright, well informed and helpful. I feel like I am no longer in the dark.”

Both students hope that through their efforts, others might become further enlightened as well. “The overall goal of the project is to get people to start thinking about how a war does not only concern the international political realm of matters, but affects people like you and me on a daily basis,” said Shivanandan in an e-mail.

“The war in Iraq does not only have to spoken of in terms of WMDs, rising insurgency or terrorism. Issues like the lack of tables and chairs in classrooms, no lab equipment and very little electricity are important to remember while discussing the war. These are things that we can take for granted here.”

“The way Iraqi students have been affected really resonates with me,” Burdett said in an e-mail. “It’s much different than hearing about bureaucratic and political people maneuvering; it’s hearing from people like me how the war has affected their lives.”

“We hope the unique angle of examining the war can make the Whitman community imagine the war through a more humanistic and relatable way,” Shivanandan added.