Rice intern organizes State Dept. e-lectures aimed at Caucasus

Rice News staff


Many students around the world are interested in learning about the United States, even if they aren’t planning to visit. In 2009, the U.S. State Department launched the Virtual Student Foreign Service program as a way to connect people in countries all over the world without the cost or the safety issues of travel.

As an eIntern for the program, Jones College senior Marc Sabbagh created and coordinated the schedule for an eight-part lecture series aimed at students in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. The lectures featured professors from Rice, the University of Pennsylvania, Texas A&M University and other U.S. colleges explaining elements of American history.

“I believe it provided a unique opportunity for these students to essentially ‘sit in’ on a college classroom lecture, even though they were participating miles away,” Sabbagh said. “Students learned about specific periods of conflict in U.S. history and had the chance to ask questions and discuss these topics in depth with the professors.”

Two of the e-lectures were delivered by Rice historians. Alexander Byrd, associate professor of history and director of the undergraduate program, discussed African-American life in the Jim Crow South through the lens of Norfolk, Va., and Allen Matusow, academic affairs director at Rice’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy and the William Gaines Twyman Professor of History, spoke on the U.S. labor movement in the 1930s.

“It was a strange experience, staring at a screen that showed only my picture and lecturing to unseen students in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia about the Great Depression,” Matusow said. “I didn’t know if anything I said got beyond the barriers of space and culture, but when I got their questions, I knew they had heard me and understood. That was gratifying.”

Byrd agreed that the format of talking into a computer was a little disconcerting. “Not being able to see ‘my students’ encouraged more professing than I’m ordinarily comfortable with,” he said. “The Q-and-A that followed the lecture, though, was as dynamic as any classroom. It was a great pleasure to field questions based on the lecture in particular (a recapitulation of Earl Lewis’ fine work on Jim Crow Norfolk) and on black life in the United States in general. I’m grateful to Marc for the opportunity and for his initiative.”

Sabbagh’s internship was with the U.S. Embassy in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. But the e-lectures were also webcast to the Armenian capital, Yerevan, and the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. About 60 university students from the three countries participated in the weekly lectures.

“My favorite part of every presentation was seeing the questions from the students appear on the screen in our Web room one after the other, and seeing the professors respond enthusiastically to the students’ input and questions,” Sabbagh said.

Sabbagh also works as an intern for the office of Edward Djerejian, the founding director of the Baker Institute. “My student internship at the Baker Institute and my past experiences with programs at the institute taught me the importance of public diplomacy and that cultural engagement is a two-way street,” Sabbagh said. “Just as these students learn that our country has faced periods of trials and conflict, I am learning about their culture, their educational experiences and their backgrounds and interests.”

Matthew Bryza, the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, saw the program’s first semester as a resounding success. “The virtual lecture series shows the ability of technology to bridge cultural and political gaps for the common purpose of education and to deepen the friendship between the United States and Azerbaijan,” Bryza said. “I am thrilled to support it and proud of our first class of fantastic students.”

Sabbagh said he is currently working on renewing the lecture series this semester, with discussions involving the students and their respective embassies.

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