Thousands of miles separate Saint Mary’s from the Middle East and North African, but the Study of the United States Institute (SUSI) once again aimed to bridge that gap by inviting 20 women from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan and the Kurdistan to campus over the summer.
According to student program coordinator and senior Marilla Opra, the College’s Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership (CWIL) instills values of confidence and hope in participants, granting everyone the distinct opportunity to grow in understanding.
“There are a bunch of different chapters of SUSI, from agriculture to technology,” Opra said. “The one Saint Mary’s does explores women’s leadership, and only four universities are chosen to host this branch.”
While in the United States, the participants took classes at Saint Mary’s, journeyed around Washington D.C. and formed close bonds with the SUSI staff, according to student program coordinator and junior Angeline Barthel. The participants learned about the realities of life in America, she said.
“Generally, these women have really great experiences meeting other people,” Barthel said. “They normally have positive experiences relating to being Muslim in America, so hearing about racism and Islamophobia gave them a new perspective.”
The program succeeds at initiating an effective cultural exchange, according to Opra.
“It really fosters diplomacy and not only changes their conceptions of the United States, but it changes our perceptions of their home countries,” she said. “For me, I’ve learned so much about these places that … there are so many misconceptions about. In reality, it’s programs like this that empower [women] and help them to make a change in their country.”
The change SUSI inspires participants to make, Opra said, is to establish initiatives in their countries that benefit women and the community.
“Part of the program is that they have to design an action plan,” she said. “They see a problem in their country, and they think about a creative solution to it. They do seminars on how to implement the program, how they would find funding, who would they contact, what sources of support they have. They get to present those at the end, and the SUSI staff picks the best, and if the women want to, they can apply for a grant from the State Department to actually really implement them.”
Barthel said she emerged from the summer as a more informed citizen of the world, and this enhanced mindset was made possible by the classes she took at Saint Mary’s.
“Having the perspective of wanting to know more about the world around me has given me this curiosity and helped me get to know their cultures more,” she said.
The program is renewed every three years, according to Opra, but funding for SUSI might not be granted under the current presidential administration.
“It would be a really unfortunate missed opportunity if we weren’t able to do it again,” Opra said. “There’s concern that the new administration will cut the program altogether, so Saint Mary’s might not even get to apply for the grant at all.”
Opra said she feels lucky to have learned more about Islam through interacting with the SUSI participants.
“I’ve gotten to go to different mosque services, and I’ve discovered that I really enjoy them and think that they’re really beautiful,” Opra said. “Especially here in Michiana, the Islamic Center is so warm and welcoming, and they do so much for the community that I didn’t even realize.”
The Saint Mary’s campus left a lasting impression on the SUSI women, according to Opra.
“They love the idea of becoming a Belle, and they really adopt the whole ‘once a Belle, always a Belle’ mindset,” she said. “They’re constantly posting pictures of Saint Mary’s and talking about how they miss their South Bend home.”
The College benefits from the program too, Opra said.
“[SUSI] really fosters an international community and takes the Saint Mary’s name abroad,” she said.
Opra said she will never forget the summer that enhanced her perspective and changed her approach to life.
“As we were saying goodbye, one woman who always wore a particular pair of earrings every single day … said ‘These are my favorite earrings. I wear them every day, and I want you to have them because you were one of the biggest parts of this summer that changed my life, and I want you to always remember me,’” Opra said. “And then, one of my Tunisian friends gave me a beautiful red dress that she had and also wanted me to have it so that I could remember the experience and the exchange that we had. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that selflessness.”