Lisle, Illinois ~ They come from thousands of miles away. From cultures with which many Americans are barely familiar. Some whose countries are wracked by sectarian rivalries which have ground political progress to a halt.
Yet their hopes, their dreams and their aspirations are not very different than those of their American hosts. They worry about education. They worry about the economy. They worry about their country's health care system. They worry about their country's future.
That is why they come here. To learn about leadership. To learn about opportunity. To learn about freedom. And to carry that dream home with them.
"The next generation is going to be the hope for Iraq," said Ali, a college student from Baghdad who believes education is the key to his country's future. "In Iraq, kids are growing up always thinking about guns. It's in their brains. It's in the movies they are watching and all the terrorism, all the bombing that is happening."
Ali wants to open a series of private schools that will reach the youth of Iraq early and help them to learn that there is an alternative to the violence – schools where they can study art, theater and English, which he calls the key to economic, political and social change.
"I have to do something for my society, even if it's a small thing," he said. "There should be a change."
Ali is one of 18 students from the Middle East who participated in the U.S. Department of State's Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) Student Leaders Program at Benedictine University. The 18 MEPI students were from Algeria, Oman, Morocco, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Syria, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Bahrain and Egypt.
The Student Leaders Program, which is funded by the Department of State through a grant awarded to six domestic academic institutions, seeks to promote a better understanding of the United States abroad and to help develop future world leaders.
Yousra, who is from Algeria, the largest country on the African continent, also believes education is the key in her country. Although she is a medical student, her school has neither laboratories nor extracurricular activities, both of which she says would create more involved, enthusiastic students. She also said students have little choice when it comes to their future.
"I would like to give high school students the opportunity to try different things, like the scientific field or artistic or literature fields, and then to choose according to their potential, what they want to be," she said. "Why not give students the chance to try this and try this, and then choose something we are best at?"
What Bahrain is best at is producing oil. But Maram is troubled by her country's dependence on oil. Eighty percent of the tiny kingdom's gross domestic product is oil, although it has only .01 percent of the world's proven oil reserves.
Maram believes educating people about solar power would go a long way toward diversifying her country's economy and providing career choices for students.
"Bahrain is very small but very highly educated," Maram said. "I think we only have 1 percent illiteracy or maybe less. People there are very educated, but there is not a large program to educate people about solar power. The problem is making them realize that they have to take that step, they have to invest in solar power because there is not enough oil to satisfy everyone."
The sun always shines in Bahrain, Maram said.
"Back home, it's sunny 365 days a year," she said. "If it rains, it rains for three days and that's it. We already have the sun, we're already tanned, so there's nothing else to do. We have to invest in it."
This is the ninth consecutive year Benedictine has participated in the MEPI program. The visiting students stayed on campus in the Intercultural House, a living/learning community that allows domestic and international students from diverse backgrounds to collectively explore culture, self-realization, community, leadership and civic responsibility.
The MEPI students also had the opportunity to spend a weekend with a host family in the Lisle area. The Yorkville family of Heidi Robbe, a former admissions counselor at Benedictine, was among the volunteers who exemplified the Benedictine value of welcoming the stranger by opening their home to a visitor from Algeria.
"We have three small children and I was afraid that a college-aged student might be bored spending the weekend with us," Robbe said. "But it turned out that our visitor had so much in common with our family. She and our 7-year-old daughter became fast friends and talked non-stop. My daughter cried when we returned our guest to the University on Sunday."
The program consisted of four weeks of seminars, workshops and co-curricular activities along with the usual tourist-type activities like visiting Chicago's museums and a trip to Six Flags Great America. Following the conclusion of the on-campus program, Benedictine's MEPI students were scheduled to visit New York City and Washington, D.C. for a debriefing with the Department of State before returning to their home countries.
Joel Ostrow, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Political Science and director of the MEPI program at Benedictine, said the group was one of the best the University has hosted.
"Each year, the success of the program depends on how the group gets together, and this group was a really socially outward group that got along with each other," he said. "Our faculty reported that this group was energized, invested and interested in the class discussions. It's been a pleasure having them on campus."
Benedictine University is an independent Roman Catholic institution located in Lisle, Illinois just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois and Mesa, Arizona. Founded in 1887, Benedictine provides 55 undergraduate majors and 17 graduate and four doctoral programs. Benedictine University is ranked No. 1 among the country’s fastest-growing campuses between 2000-2010 in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s list of private nonprofit research institutions, and Forbes magazine named Benedictine among “America’s Top Colleges” for the third consecutive year in 2013. Benedictine University’s Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) program is listed by Crain’s Chicago Business as the fifth largest in the Chicago area in 2012.