BY PHONG LY
Genesis Buckhalton, a first-year at Drake University, was supposed to have a six-week winter break like all the other first-years at Drake. Instead, she chose to be a part of a two-week long federally funded program with seven other American students and eight Palestinian students.
Buckhalton said she first heard about this opportunity from an event she attended with her crew mentor. She was sitting right next to Darcie Vandegrift, who led the January workshop at Drake.
“I told her I have a radio show here on campus every Thursday night,” Buckhalton said. “She told me I should look into the PAYCE program that she was going to be running over J-term.”
Buckhalton ended up applying to the program, but kept thinking that she was not going to get in.
“I’m a freshman,” Buckhalton said. “Also, there are juniors and seniors who could (have) also applied and definitely are way more qualified than I was.”
According to Drake Professor of Sociology Darcie Vandegrift, the Palestinian-American Youth Civic Engagement (PAYCE) workshop is funded by the Stevens Initiative, a foundation that is dedicated to increasing exchange between youths and young adults in the Middle East and the United States. For this workshop, the students arrived Jan. 4 and were on campus through Jan. 19, engaging in daily activities that explore the role of young adults in civic issues.
“We are a curriculum initiative which includes six campuses, two campuses from Palestine and four campuses from the United States,” Vandegrift said. “These groups of students who came were a competitively selected group of fellows who came to Des Moines for two weeks and essentially did a study trip to Des Moines, Iowa to learn young adults’ political and civic engagement.”
For their final project, the students each produced two original podcasts—one about their own experiences and involvement with civic and political engagement, and the other derived from interviews with young civic leaders in Des Moines.
Participants also met with bipartisan groups of young Iowans to discuss civic engagement in three major areas: institutional politics, nonprofits and advocacy groups and social advocacy. The group of students were given a chance to observe the Iowa court system, meet legislators and legislative staff members at the Iowa State Capitol, and talk to local non-profit leaders, community activists, as well as faith leaders.
Professor Vandegrift also mentioned that students got the opportunity to reflect on their experience in their home context so that they could further understand each other, and also increase curiosity in intercultural exchange.
Buckhalton said that it was really cool to be learning about a different culture, different perspectives and what Palestinian students go through in their daily lives. Despite the fact that all participants were from different backgrounds, Buckhalton said that there was not a lot of internal conflict in the group.
“We talked about it before and we all agreed to be understanding while learning other people’s culture,” Buckhalton said. “Some conflicts we had was more when we had panels, and the panelists were saying things about the situation between Israel and Palestine that the Palestinians didn’t agree with.”
Buckhalton said that they all try to keep the panels pretty civilized, but at times it was hard for the Palestinian students to stay quiet because of some issues the panelists mentioned without consideration to the Palestinian home context.
“You could see in their faces that they were pretty upset and uncomfortable,” Buckhalton said.
According to Buckhalton, there were chances for both sides to talk and reach a common ground. As a group, they were always careful to not let any debates get too heated.
Professor Vandegrift thought that overall, the experience was “transformative” for all the people involved, and she is looking forward to the second season of podcasts by the end of this semester.
“It will be stories not just about Des Moines, but also stories about all other campuses and about young adults in all other cities that we have worked with,” Vandegrift said. “These stories are really worth telling.”