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College students from all over Iraq found their way to campus this summer to take part in the VCU social media institute.
For the fifth consecutive year, 25 Iraqi students came together with 25 VCU students to take part in a four-week social media project working with non-profits in the Richmond area. VCU mass communications professors Marcus Messner, Ph.D., and Vivian Medina-Messner taught the course.
The timing of the class coincided with the increasing political turmoil gripping Iraq at the hands of the Islamic State.
In June the Islamic State, a non-governmental military group that has gained traction as a result of the Syrian civil war, crossed over the border of Syria into Iraq. Since then they have been dubbed the “best-resourced terror organization” by the International Business Times.
The summer course consisted of students working in groups to develop social media campaigns for the non-profit they were paired with.
“Ignoring social media means ignoring a way of how we communicate routinely today,” Messner said of social media’s importance.
Fifty-five nonprofits applied to be a part of this program this year and 10 were chosen: Nature Iraq, William Byrd Community House, The Conclave on Social Media Measurement Standards, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Richmond, Virginia Union University, The Virginia Holocaust Museum, Goodwill Industries, James River Writers, League of Women Voters-Richmond Metro Area and the VCU Department of Music.
“We’re looking for the potential for a good project,” Messner said. “So a non-profit that already has a good social media presence is not a really good client for us.”
This was the first year the program has worked with a non-profit based in Iraq, Nature Iraq.
The class at VCU started in 2010 when the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was looking for academic partners in the United States. Meridian International, a group that works with the State Department and U.S. embassies worldwide to create international partnerships through cultural exchanges, won the grant from the embassy and put the call out to American universities. VCU has applied every year, and has received this grant for five years straight.
University of Texas Austin, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Ball State and Mississippi State also received this grant and have had students from Iraq on their campuses for the summer. But VCU is the only school that offers the program to students other than the Iraqi students; it’s also the only program where they learn about social media.
Medina-Messner said the course is not just about lectures, it is an opportunity to work with a student from a completely different world, culturally.
“It’s a true cultural experience along with that academic experience,” Medina-Messner said.
Iraqi students give presentations on the regions where they live, which allows the U.S. students to see a different side of a country that is normally only seen on the news.
This trend continued this past July. News of the terrorist group ISIS filled TV screens as the group pushed through Iraq. This worsened when students in the class found out family members had become refugees due to the fighting in thir home country.
“You could tell that the students were worried,” Messner said.
He said this wasn’t the first year there had been conflict in the region while the course was taking place, but the severity of the events this summer was the worst he has seen.
The VCU and Iraqi students have maintained contact with one other since disbanding on July 25. The group is in touch almost daily through Facebook groups and other digital communication methods.
Messner and Medina-Messner plan to continue the program next summer as long as they are able to receive the grant for the sixth time. They have already submitted the application.
Planning for next year won’t start until spring semester.
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