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Students build community and peace through co-op

Victoria Porell stands in solidarity with a group of young Syrian activists who strive to solve conflict without shedding blood in their war-ravaged country.

The fourth-year international affairs major worked with the peaceful resistors while on co-op last spring as a research associate at the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies, a nongovernmental organization in Belgrade, Serbia.

“It’s powerful to see people my own age committed to making their country a better place no matter the price,” said Porell, who noted that the activists had been beaten and arrested for their nonviolent resistance. “To hear what they face compared to what I face is humbling.”

Porell was one of five accomplished Northeastern students who reflected on the value of experiential learning on campus and around the world on Wednesday evening at the second event in a yearlong educational series on civic sustainability.

The series—Conflict. Civility. Respect. Peace. Northeastern Reflects—is organized by College of Social Sciences and Humanities and the Office of Student Affairs and is hosted by Distinguished Professor of Political Science Michael Dukakis in conjunction with the Presidential Council on Inclusion and Diversity. President Joseph E. Aoun announced the formation of the presidential council last month.

The first event in the series was titled “Understanding Hate” and explored hate crimes, intergroup relations, and campus climate. The next one is the annual Northeastern Holocaust Commemoration on April 8. Wednesday’s event, “I Am Northeastern,” challenged a quintet of student panelists to discuss whether their global experiences should serve as impetus to make the university’s Pledge more ambitious.

The Pledge promotes a safe and peaceful living environment for students and neighbors and reads in full: “As a Northeastern student, I know that what I do and how I act directly affects other members of the community, especially our neighbors. I pledge to represent the values of Northeastern in my actions, whether in interactions with fellow students, neighbors in our local community, or wherever my studies and co-op take me, whether here in Boston, around the country or all over the world. I am Northeastern!”

The student panelists comprised psychology major Rona Tarazi and international affairs majors Harrison Craig, Miguel de Corral, Ellie Deshaies, and Porell. Gia Barboza, an assistant professor of African American Studies, and Serena Parekh, an assistant professor of philosophy, moderated the discussion.

Uta Poiger, co-chair of the PCID and interim dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, welcomed students, faculty, and staff to the event, which was held in the Amílcar Cabral Center.

Poiger encouraged Northeastern community members to become pioneers in civic sustainability, which she defined as “practicing civility while engaging with diverse opinions, acknowledging past problems, broadening personal networks, finding common ground in social action, and making the world a better place.”

Deshaies did her part to make the world a better place through a co-op experience with a community high school in Caye Caulker, Belize. There, the young humanitarian helped more than a dozen students transform their community through service projects grounded in teamwork, communication, and problem-solving skills. She oversaw one group of students who cleaned up trash from a local beach and then posted a video of the experience on YouTube to the tune of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.”

“Engaging with the community can bring about social justice,” explained Deshaies. She connected with the school in Belize through Northeastern’s student group Peace through Play, which empowers Boston youth to become peacemakers in their community.

Tarazi is a peacemaker. As a volunteer for the nonprofit LIFT Boston, she helps low-income individuals secure education, housing, and healthcare. In one case, she phoned a hospital on behalf of a client, a Latin American woman who claimed that a nurse had refused to schedule an appointment because of her poor English-speaking skills.

“I spoke to the nurse’s supervisor and was promised that this would never happen again,” recalled Tarazi. “My client was so thankful.”

Discrimination based on age, gender, race, and education level has “prevented my clients from climbing the ladder of achievement,” she added. “Society can be so culturally insensitive to minorities who are not able to get what they need.”

Northeastern, on the other hand, fosters a strong sense of inclusion and challenges students to live outside of their comfort zones, according to Craig. He studied in Greece through the N.U.in Program and then cultivated his interest in international education through a co-op with Northeastern’s International Student and Scholar Institute.

Beginning his college career in a foreign country, he said, “challenged me in ways I could not have foreseen. It shaped who I am as a student today.”

He praised his peers for helping him cope with culture shock and homesickness, saying, “I felt a sense of community and was able to find myself through these experiences.”

Of his co-op with ISSI, he said, “I am dealing with students from all over the world. The experience has introduced me to really incredible people that I otherwise would have never met.”

To that end, more than 6,300 international students from more than 140 countries worldwide are currently enrolled at Northeastern, many of whom have unique religious and political beliefs.

De Corral, who has participated in Dialogue of Civilizations programs in Israel, Geneva, Egypt, and the Balkans, stressed the importance of listening to other points of view. “To understand conflict, you must understand every narrative that is being discussed,” he explained. “It’s important to see other sides.”

Following the panel discussion, students answered questions posed by audience members. Barry Bluestone, the Russell B. and Andree B. Stearns Trustee Professor of Political Economy and founding dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, asked Porell to expand on the concept of solidarity, which he characterized as a powerful idea.

“When I think of solidarity, I think of engagement, not charity,” Porell said. “Solidarity is not doing things for people. It is helping people solve problems without imposing your own value system.”