As you walk to class today, consider how you got here. You most likely performed well in high school, applied to the University, were accepted, paid the fees and enrolled. But for others around the world, in countries like Afghanistan, this process is not so simple, especially if you are a woman.
“Imagine having to ask your father or your uncle to get a college education,” said Marti Boone, a board of directors member for the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, a nonprofit that provides a college education in the United States to Afghan women so they can influence positive change in their native country.
Founded in 2003, the organization recently partnered with the University of Rhode Island through the Harrington School of Communication’s “UnClassroom” experience, a unique learning opportunity where students gain “project based real world learning, paired with a professional organization,” said communications professor Daphne Wales.
In a Skype call Tuesday night, Boone discussed the IEAW mission statement, interview techniques and offered guidance to members of Phoenix Communications, a communications company created by Wales, comprised entirely of URI students who take her COM 310 special topics class, aptly titled “The Initiative to Educate Afghan Women.”
Like any other communications company, students work in teams on different aspects of a common goal. Groups of 3 to 6 students are each assigned to different task forces based on their majors or interests, said Wales. This semester, the class is comprised of a social media, promotions and events, Alumnae development and media relations teams.
Last semester, in the first official partnership with the class, students helped to recreate the IEAW’s online presence by redesigning their website and through developing content about the organization.
This semester’s goal, along with raising awareness for the organization on campus, URI students are working to create an Alumni Association for the IEAW graduates and current students so they can partner together to continue to work together to influence positive change in Afghanistan.
It is not a typical classroom experience. Wales said that students often have trouble adjusting to not receiving “step by step instructions” but are instead “given teams, told what to do and to start producing materials.”
“In my experience, students get frustrated,” said Wales. “Part of real world learning is having this discomfort with how to solve problem within the company we’ve created, and step into the role that they’re given.”
Students in the class agree but see the value in this type of experience.
“It’s kinda cool, we all have input on what’s going to happen, but it’s nerve wracking because it’s a real thing,” said communications major Abby Haslett, who works in the Alumnae Association development team.
Senior Aaron Davis works on the Media Relations team, where he and his teammates write “articles for the website pertaining to people involved in the initiative.”
“It’s like I have a job on the side,” he said. “It only meets once a week, but we meet [outside class] in our groups. It gives real life experience, working on a team as individuals with a common goal. It’s a bunch of people that care, people that want to produce something good.”
To help enhance their professional skills and communication practices, students also work with top media and business executives, like Boone, to provide guidance through this process and give them more professional experience.
Everything that students create for the IEAW must also be presented and approved to Wales and Christian Wistehuff, the Initiative’s executive director. Even if not everything that students produce is used, Wales said that students can still use all of this experience on resumes and in a portfolio of their work that they create at the end of the semester.
Wales prides the class on its opportunity to provide students with professional learning experiences, but also because it gives them an opportunity to gain more global cultural perspectives.
“It’s an international study abroad experience without leaving Rhode Island,” Wales said, noting experiences that students have had interacting with people who have lived and worked in Afghanistan, like Afghan women coming to the country and a CNN International Correspondent.
Haslett also mentioned that prior to the class, she did not know very much about Afghanistan and its culture, but has learned a lot through the course.
Senior Tim Lutz, a member of the Social Media team, said he is already eager to show future employers his experiences working on the IEAW’s Twitter account.
Through this experience, he says he has learned a lot about the culture.
“Each tweet is an hour of research. It really shows the power of social media,” he said. “It’s all about giving a face to these girls.”