They looked like any American student in blue jeans and T-shirts, but they were a very special group from across the world who had come to the United States to learn what Benedictine University could teach them about how to be a leader in their country.
For the eighth consecutive summer, Benedictine has hosted more than 20 students from the Middle East and North Africa for an intensive program of leadership training and civic responsibility in a democratic society. They partnered with Benedictine students in classes aimed at providing opportunities to explore issues related to democracy, leadership and American culture. In the course of these classes, they became friends with their American hosts.
The students were participants in the U.S. Department of State's Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) at Benedictine University -- one of only six U.S. universities to host this program, which is aimed at training students as leaders to advance social reforms in the Middle East and North Africa.
MEPI is a presidential initiative founded to promote political, economic and educational reform through diplomatic efforts and results-oriented programs. It focuses on mutual understanding between people of the United States and people of other countries around the world.
For these students, this was not an ordinary study abroad summer excursion. Many students came from countries recovering from war or revolution. How do you learn and experience new things when you fear for the safety of your loved ones and the very way of life you have known? Learn they did, and we, their hosts, may have learned even more.
Of course, seeing Arab and Muslim students on Benedictine's campus is not unusual. In fact, it's commonplace because Arabs and Muslims make up 25 percent of Benedictine's student population.
Although the MEPI students at Benedictine learn how to be future leaders, they also learn about American culture and teach Americans about their culture, which can help dispel negative stereotypes of people from their regions. Negative views of Muslims have intensified since the 9/11 attacks on America when many collectively branded Arabs and particularly Muslims as terrorists - something MEPI students say is also perpetuated in Hollywood movies and TV shows.
Some students said Westerners seem to believe Arabs or Muslims live in tents with camels in the dessert. To combat these untruths, students suggested improving communication between American and Middle East youth and increasing the number of study abroad opportunities for American students to the Middle East and North Africa.
Not only has the MEPI program at Benedictine allowed students the opportunity to discuss freely ideas and learn leadership skills that will enhance their careers and provide an impetus for positive change in their homelands, it also has given natives of Arab nations who live on the border of one another, ironically, a first opportunity to engage one another.
Students attending Benedictine this summer got a slight reprieve from the turmoil playing out in some of their home countries where several mentioned the threat of physical violence or death was a daily fear because of extremist views of hate toward those who are different or who express an unpopular opinion.
We are all individuals -- all made unique and so different from each other. Each person, no matter their ethnicity or racial heritage is a unique gift to the rest of us. I often say that God has a funny sense of humor. Humankind was created incomplete. Our completion is like putting together a puzzle. Interestingly, God has placed our missing puzzle pieces in others. To be whole and complete, we must engage them.
Benedictine gave these international scholars a chance to see American culture and the challenges we face as a diverse society. As Catholics and as Benedictines we take it as our mandate to foster interreligious dialogue and to embrace the stranger as God among us -- no matter their race, ethnicity, or religious persuasion.
During one of the early years with the MEPI program, as the students prepared to leave Benedictine University for the final time, a student from Lebanon had no place to go home to due to the fact her then War-torn country was not receiving commercial flights.
The University worked with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and the U.S. State Department to permit the student to stay in the United States and study at Benedictine for one semester. The University and its friends provided her tuition, room and board and whatever she needed to be successful. I was asked "why would Benedictine University do this?" The answer is simple -- that's what Benedictines do!