This past August, while other Whitman students were busy arranging their dorm rooms and enrolling in the new Arabic 101 class, Elizabeth Oberhausen ’08 was repairing rundown grade schools and working with orphans in Egypt.
Elizabeth Oberhausen ’08 makes origami figures with orphans in Egypt during her fellowship program.
The politics major was part of an intensive, 13-day international program titled “Global Leadership in the 21st Century: Identity, Diversity, Respect and Opportunity.” Organized by AFS Intercultural Programs (formerly the American Field Service) in Egypt and the U.S. government, the fellowship program brought together 15 Americans, 10 Egyptians and 25 other Middle Eastern students to participate in leadership and community service projects emphasizing intercultural exchange.
Oberhausen is no stranger to international travel and community service. In the summer of 2006 she went to East Africa with United Students for Fair Trade. Last spring, she studied abroad in Sweden, where she examined the country’s social welfare state.
At Whitman, she served as co-president of the Fair Trade Club and lived in the MECCA (Multi-Ethnic Center for Cultural Affairs) House.
Oberhausen, who hails from Portland, Ore., worked at AFS this past summer and decided in July to apply for the fellowship program. This is the first year that AFS has hosted such a program.
After an initial meeting in Cairo, Oberhausen was placed in a homestay in Port Said, where she and other students attended leadership seminars. They studied a local orphanage and made recommendations to improve management of the facility.
Students were then divided into groups to carry out community service projects in the El Gammaleya district of Cairo. Oberhausen’s group worked to refurbish a dilapidated school.
“Initially, I wasn’t sure what kind of impact we had, since we were only there for a few days,” she said. “But people ended up coming off the streets to help us. The head of AFS Egypt told us later that, though community service is not very common in Egypt and is not a large part of the culture, community members were inspired to continue the work after we left.”
The program culminated with a three-day International Youth Forum on the theme of “The Power of Youth for Peace.” At the last minute, Oberhausen was invited to speak at the closing ceremony to 900 students and 300 political and business leaders from around the globe, all gathered to “listen to youth voices.”
Oberhausen allows that there were some concerns about the conference, which was run by Egyptian First Lady Suzanne Mubarak. “Some of the Egyptian students were kind of skeptical about the integrity of the conference, because the president [Hosni Mubarak] is known for imprisoning political dissidents,” Oberhausen said.
Nonetheless, the conference produced many important outcomes. “You had Iraqis, Afghanis and Americans sharing their perspectives about the peace process,” Oberhausen said. “You had students from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo standing up and talking about how they’d been taught growing up that people from each other’s countries couldn’t be reasoned with. People formed genuinely close relationships.”
Oberhausen’s roommate, Diana Alzeer, echoed her sentiments. “As a Palestinian, it’s often very difficult to leave the country — many borders are closed to us,” she told the group at the end of the program. “Being with all of you these past two weeks made me feel like I crossed all the borders and got to know each one of your countries better. It’s been an amazing experience.”
For Oberhausen, the bond remains. She returned to Whitman in early September with a broader perspective on the Middle East and clear plans to expand the lines of intercultural exchange. She intends to pursue a career in international relations, with an emphasis on conflict resolution and human rights.
Meanwhile, she and her 14 American colleagues are using a $500 stipend (awarded collectively to each country’s representatives) to create a Web site that will feature alternative news from the Middle East. Several students whom Oberhausen met in the program will contribute content to the site.
She plans to visit government classes at several area high schools to talk about the Web site and her experience in Egypt in general. “News of violence from places like Lebanon hits me harder now,” she said, “because I think about my friends there and their families. The overall goal is empathy.”
Oberhausen hopes her efforts will “help people feel personally connected” to a global community. “Getting the chance to understand the current situation and everyday life in each of the students’ countries made me feel connected to those countries in a way I would never have been otherwise,” she said.
— Katie Combs ’08
Office of Communications, Whitman College