By Brittney Dunkins
On a humid day in Washington, 20 students in George Washington University’s Cyprus Bi-Communal Summer Youth Institute are sitting in Meridian Hill Park.
Representing both Greek and Turkish factions in the Republic of Cyprus, the students though light-hearted in mood, are sitting according to region.
They discuss the grim statue of the 15th President of the United States James Buchanan, while their tour guide, Paul Wagner, a student in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development’s Master of Higher Education Administration program, explains the story of “the most hated U.S. president” and the division of the United States during the Civil War.
A student asks, “If he is the most hated president, why does he get a big statue?”
Another student deadpans. “This is America— everything is bigger.”
Though everyone laughs, this first-hand, two-fold cultural exploration—Cyprus and America; Turkish and Greek Cypriot cultures— is at the root of the intensive week-long residential program, which confronts cultural perceptions through academic exploration.
The inaugural program, hosted by the International Summer division of the Summer and Special Programs office and funded through the Cyprus Fulbright Commission and the U.S. Embassy Nicosia’s Bicommunal Support Program, was an effort to address the effect of more than 30 years of conflict between Greek and Turkish Cypriots in the Republic of Cyprus.
A de facto division of the region has been in place since 1974 with two thirds of the island controlled by the state and the remaining third controlled by Turkish Cypriots.
“The idea for the program was to bring divided communities together,” Director of International Summer Claire Shoolin said. “The students focused on peace studies and conflict-resolution as well as business, entrepreneurship and social media.”
Students were able to earn one college credit through the residential institute, attending lectures organized by Associate Professor and Director of the Peace Studies program Irene Oh that covered concepts such as mediation, negotiation, philosophies of non-violence and becoming engaged citizens in the practice of peace.
“The students performed exceptionally well,” Dr. Oh said. “They were fully engaged in high-level discussion with the faculty members on topics ranging from the American Civil Rights Movement to the role of Twitter in the Arab Revolution,” she added.
A visit to the United States Institute of Peace where the students saw measures taken by the U.S. to implement peace tactics was of particular note.
“The fact that businesses or even art can aid in resolving tensions was interesting to consider and the idea of fostering peace, motivating,” said Marios Christodoulides, a student in the program.
George Hadjipavlis agreed, noting that the academic rigor was challenging, but ultimately, rewarding.
“I sincerely believe that the high academic quality of the program was essential for its success,” he said. “Returning to Cyprus I am positive that I am in a better position to tackle any matters regarding conflict resolution.”
In addition to academics, the students also experienced local culture, chowing on hot dogs at Ben’s Chili Bowl and touring U Street and the National Mall.
The challenge of their own culture clash added another dimension to the program and allowed the students to test the peacebuilding methods they learned in class.
“The most difficult part was getting to break the ice between the participants as we all come from different backgrounds and from two different communities which differ in culture and language,” Mr. Hadjipavlis said.
“Looking at the guys now, I have to say that we totally mastered this challenge, and I am sure we will stay in touch for many years to come,” he added.
The success of the inaugural program was a big win for the International Summer program, which has only been up and running for a little over a year.
“International Summer is acombined effort between the Office of International Programs and the Summer and Special Programs office and the result of the university’s Innovative Task Force,” said Ms. Shoolin. “The initial purpose of the initiative was to have visiting students come for short-term stays and take the available summer courses; I was brought on board five months ago to oversee programming.”
Since then the vision has expanded to include two custom programs— the Cyprus Bi-Communal Summer Youth Institute and an exchange program with law students from Japan’s Fukuoka University.
The law program with Fukuoka University begins this week, and will include site visits to the U.S. Supreme Court, an observation of a trial in U.S. district court for D.C. and lectures on global integrity and the role of NGO.
“Fukuoka approached us about a year ago with the program and we thought this would be a great opportunity to kick-start our custom programming,” Ms. Shoolin said.
Additional programming includes the Pre-College Program for high school students, Semester in Washington Program and English for Academic Purposes program for students in undergraduate and graduate full time programs. International students can also attend General Study summer courses at GW through a sponsored F1 visa.
GW’s International Summer is working with 14 offices and departments campus-wide to serve students from over 25 countries.
“These programs align with the strategic plan for the university, increasing diversity on campus and expanding our international recognition,” Ms. Shoolin said.