The first group of winners of the Chris Stevens Virtual Exchange Initiative competition, limited to US NGOs in its first year, was announced this week in Washington, DC. The program is part of a multi-year effort to generate cross-cultural communications among young people in the US. Middle East, and North Africa (MENA). An international public-private partnership, the Stevens Initiative is named in honor of Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was killed in Libya and had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco.
The Aspen Institute is hosting the Initiative and managing the process of awarding grants through competitions to be held annually, beginning in the US and then extended throughout the MENA region. A defining feature of the Initiative is the central role played by social media to create virtual exchanges, according to the Aspen Institute, “to improve understanding, respect, and dialogue across cultures and equip young people with the skills they need to succeed in a global economy.”
The exchanges focus on creating virtual classrooms where students connect from different parts of the world to learn and work together on a variety of defined subjects, and through this interaction, to develop better understanding and respect for each other and their cultures. Recognizing that in most countries, access to the Internet could be limited by economic and social factors, the Initiative places special consideration on projects that reach into underserved and marginalized communities.
The Initiative is providing $5 million to support the new online programs, which aim to bring more than 20,000 young people together to engage in cross-cultural learning experiences in 17 countries in the Middle East and North Africa and in 25 American states.
As Elliot Gerson, Executive Vice President of the Aspen Institute noted, “Our goal is to spark conversations between students in countries around the world – conversations to exchange ideas and information and to work together on addressing important issues. We are excited at the prospect of helping to prepare a new generation of global citizens.”
Most programs will launch in spring 2016 and continue for a period of two years. Among the projects:
- Online English and Arabic language exchange between students in California and their peers in Morocco and Saudi Arabia
- Using media tools, including virtual reality, as a springboard for conversation and social learning among middle and high school students, including Syrian refugees, in Kentucky, New York, and Jordan
- Environmental studies projects for students in the United Arab Emirates and the United States
- A virtual “study abroad” program for students in Iraq, Illinois, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Washington, and Wisconsin
Evan Ryan, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, added that “By creating opportunities for engagement among students, teachers, and professionals, the Stevens Initiative honors Ambassador Stevens’ legacy.”
The next round of the competition, scheduled for later in 2016, will be open to applicants from the MENA and the US. It will focus on sharing best practices and on research into how to measure the impact of the Initiative and how to grow the program.
The awardees of the first Stevens Initiative grant competition are:
- Chicago Sister Cities International
- Eurasia Foundation
- Global Nomads Group
- National Democratic Institute
- State University of New York – Center for Collaborative Online International Learning
- University of California – Berkeley
- Wofford College
- World Learning
An interesting sidebar is that Ambassador Stevens attended UC Berkeley, and its Center for Middle East Studies (CMES) administers the Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens Memorial Fund for Middle Eastern Studies to support UC Berkeley student travel and research in the Middle East and North Africa.
According to the Center, “The new CMES program will provide an opportunity for Berkeley undergraduates to interact with peers at institutions in rural Morocco and Saudi Arabia, with subsequent exchanges planned in Iraq and Jordan.”
CMES Chair Emily Gottreich pointed out that “Ambassador Stevens spent his undergraduate career studying history here at UC Berkeley before starting his service career in Morocco with the Peace Corps. We are honored to have been entrusted with the important work of continuing his legacy through these exchanges.”
The Stevens Institute is a collaboration among the Stevens family, the US Department of State, the Bezos Family Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Algeria, Morocco, Microsoft, Twitter, Mozilla, and GoPro.