Carnegie Mellon University
March 27, 2024

Empowering Civility: Students Cultivate Respectful Conversation Skills

Stefanie Johndrow

Nevine Abraham, assistant teaching professor of Arabic studies in Carnegie Mellon University’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, was teaching Arab Culture Through Dialogues, Film and Literature: Minorities in the Middle East and North Africa at the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.

Students of various backgrounds were taking the Department of Languages, Cultures & Applied Linguistics’ elective course, which largely involved class discussions, guest speakers and virtual sessions with undergraduate college students in Egypt and at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar.

“This class was a unique experience given the timing of the events, the topic of the course, and the diversity of my students, many of whom were navigating a whirlwind of emotions, having family ties in Israel and Palestine,” Abraham said. “As an educator, it was important to establish good communication and remind them to be mindful of each other’s feelings during such polarizing, difficult times to keep conversations constructive. Our campus community needed binding. Of course, students have freedom of speech in a class, but it was a matter of how to not let one view intimidate the rest or make them feel uncomfortable.”

This dialogue was an impactful experience for Maya Salameh, a senior from CMU’s Qatar campus who spent the fall semester on the Pittsburgh campus.

“I got to learn a lot from hearing the different insights of students,” said Salameh, a biological sciences major who is Jordanian and Palestinian.

“I think the recent events of Oct. 7 showed us how everyone’s histories and lives are very interconnected and how important it is to be educated on the political affairs of the world,” Salameh said. “I feel at times people in America live in a bubble where they aren’t aware of what’s happening outside of the country. Even though I am Middle Eastern, I feel like I don’t read enough about the history and the politics of the region, so I think overall I got to learn a lot about different countries.”

Understanding the complexity of the social reality of Arab society necessitates giving students first-hand experiences. In addition to holding dialogues with their peers in Arab countries, students engaged in conversations with guest speakers and scholars-at-risk about their experiences as ex-political prisoners post the 2011 uprisings in Syria and Egypt. They shared what it meant to have freedom of expression and to be artists and writers in exile. They reflected on the power of words.

Bianca Turner, a first-year student in the College of Engineering, was engaged in class discussions and experiences Abraham organized.

“I learned a lot of political background of governments that I didn’t know much about. We also had several speakers come in and share their stories that really stuck with me,” said Turner, who is Jewish and has family in Israel. 

“Toward the end of the semester, due to what’s happening in the Middle East right now, we had a unity cooking event for Middle Eastern students, Jewish students and Muslim students,” Turner said.

Abraham collaborated with Dareen Basma, associate dean of diversity, inclusion, climate and equity (DICE) at the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy and held a Friendsgiving cook along during the week of Thanksgiving. Students in the course and Arabic language classes made Arab and Mizrahi dishes using kosher and halal ingredients. These dishes highlight the shared history of Arabs and Jews who lived in Arab lands.

“Cooking together fostered communal bonding, resilience and hospitality, a central value in Arab culture,” Abraham said.

Abraham offers the course each semester, and Salameh urges students to consider taking the class.

“I would recommend this class to students, specifically because it will provide them with super accurate information,” Salameh said. “It’s not the kind of knowledge that you can get anywhere else. Personal experiences are things that are shared from what you have lived. You can’t read these things in a textbook.”