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College hosts State Department summer program

| Thursday, September 4, 2014

As conflicts around the globe erupted over the summer, Saint Mary’s College hosted the Global Women Leaders Institute as part of a U.S. Department of State “Study of the U.S. Institute” (SUSI), which focused on understanding the U.S.’s role abroad and fostering a new generation of leaders.

This past July, the College welcomed 20 undergraduate women from Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Iraq and Jordan, as well as four Saint Mary’s students, to share educational opportunities and personal encounters that may be applied in their home countries, director of media relations Gwen O’Brien said.

The SUSI grant, which completed the last leg of its three-year cycle this past summer, brought in young women from diverse fields of study, Mana Derakhshani, associate director of the Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership (CWIL) and the academic director of the Institute, said. The students’ range of academic interests were consistent with last year’s participants, Derakhshani said.

The SUSI offered sessions on cultural identity, intercultural skills, gender and culture, women and peace movements, U.S. women’s history, women and political representation in the U.S. and globally and women’s economic empowerment, O’Brien said.

The various political dynamics of the home countries of this year’s attendees show the appeal of the SUSI, Derakhshani said.

“What they all have in common, is that they are emerging democracies trying to figure out how to transition from more traditional forms of leadership,” Derakhshani said. “This is a crucial time in all these regions for women to have a voice in public discourse and be ready for public service.”

Derakhshani said the women who partake in the SUSI do so to gain new know-how that will enhance their leadership back home. Derakhshani said she helped her colleague, Martha Smith, design the leadership part of the curriculum.

“They create a network of support and resources for each other,” Derakhshani said. “Finally, through learning about women’s issues in the U.S. and globally, they become more aware of ways they can advocate for themselves and women everywhere.”

During the five-week program, the women traveled to Washington to visit the U.S. Institute of Peace; Chicago, to attend a seminar at the University of Chicago Law School; Detroit, for a seminar on Arab-American women’s leadership; and Indianapolis, where they met with the Secretary of State, O’Brien said.

“These institutes are part of the Department of State’s soft diplomacy efforts around the world, because they bring to the U.S. young leaders and scholars to learn about the U.S., meet Americans, and develop their own skills,” Derakhshani said. “The SUSI on women’s leadership were an initiative of Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State, so they are relatively recent.”

Closer to their temporary home, the women volunteered at South Bend agencies that are partners with the College, working at St. Margaret’s house, the Center for the Homeless, Chiara Home and more, O’Brien said.

On a hyper-local level, Derakhshani said the SUSI helps women approach political change in their home counties while enriching the educational experience of the four Saint Mary’s students who took the course.

“Through the presence of these young women on campus, and through their interaction with Saint Mary’s students, the SUSI contributes to the internationalization of the College,” Derakhshani said. “It dovetails beautifully with intercultural competence and global learning outcomes of the new Sophia Program.”

Derakshani said the award of the State Department grant improves Saint Mary’s national reputation and increases the College’s visibility.

“Through its participation in this program, the College gains recognition for its intercultural and global focus as well as its expertise in developing women’s leadership,” Derakhshani said.

This summer’s participants worked in groups to develop specific action plans they intend to implement at home, Derakhshani said.

“One of the most intriguing action plan was the Jordanians’ project to start a taxi company with women cab drivers,” Derakhshani said. “This is particularly important activism not only to break the stereotype of gender specific jobs or trade, but to provide safe transportation to young women who are often victim of sexual harassment in the street and on public transportation, and who are not allowed, or do not feel safe, riding by themselves in cab driven by men.”

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