Soliya is an online educational platform designed to allow people of different cultures and backgrounds to connect and discuss their insights with each other. In the program people are able to discuss a variety of topics that are both controversial and engaging without being afraid of being judged or discriminated against. The conversations are moderated by a facilitator who makes sure everything is in order and everyone is engaged and taking turns to share their thoughts.
I had the opportunity to discuss with my group how the Connect Program in one of the sessions in the program. What made soliya unique of its own kind is the idea that it is an online platform entirely designated for educational purposes. If we look around, the idea of creating an online platform that helps people of different backgrounds communicate in a similar form like soliya is not implemented variously. Personally, I would think of zoom only as a closely related idea to the program. However, it is not facilitated in a certain way to cater for educational purposes and make sure they are abiding by the initial goals of the platform. I learned from my group that three of the participants were students as well and joined the Connect Express program for core classes in their university. Another student joined the program in an attempt to enhance her speaking skills in order to prepare for her IELTS exam. In that regard, I understood how people can use it for different academic purposes at the same time. Another aspect that makes the Connect Program differ from other online platforms is the ability to create an engaging communication channel between the participants that is both secure and private. The facilitator would always mention the idea of the sessions being our platform to speak freely without having to worry about being watched or censored by anyone like other platforms on the internet. Finally, what made the Connect Program very unique is the instructions we were given at the beginning. We were always told by the facilitators that although everyone comes from different backgrounds, we were always asked to listen to them, accept them and try to understand their point of view regardless of what we think. In that sense, we learned how to communicate with each other and set boundaries of what to do in the program and what is considered unacceptable.
I consider myself to have been an engaged communicator in class. The topics discussed were very interesting and always kept me wondering. I believe what made the communication both constructive and interesting was the openness and acceptance of people in the program. I felt comfortable sharing details of my personal life, interests and hobbies without fearing anyone’s judgments. At the beginning, I wasn’t sure how to feel about the program and the overall experience, however, I felt that I was the type of communicator I would be in reality. Speaking of which, I felt very excited to share my views about identity, culture, violence in the Middle East and mental health. I think my only issue would be that facilitators needed to ensure that all participants were engaging in the program. Personally, I felt that it was only me and five other participants that kept the conversation going while others didn’t feel like participating throughout the entire program and would sometimes not show up. The digital world is a huge advantage to help people who are naturally shy and afraid to speak up hide behind the screen and make their voices heard. It is a matter of who chooses to use the opportunity and who decides to take it lightly, refusing to benefit from the overall experience.
I think the most important part of holding a conversation is acceptance. In the context of Soliya, we needed to acquire this skill in order to make everyone feel comfortable to engage and their personal insights towards the topic. In that regard, we were in a context that exposed us to different ideas depending on people’s different backgrounds which we were less likely to relate to. Relating to a certain topic shouldn’t be the main aspect to keep someone engaged in a discussion and certainly not a good enough reason to allow someone to judge, criticize or hurt someone in the process. Another important aspect is to always ask questions. I think it helps people better understand the other person’s point of view and helps with engagement as well. I feel like it also supports the person speaking and makes them feel both heard and understood. By observing this behavior, more people could feel encouraged to participate and share more details about their personal views on a certain topic. Personally, I also feel using visuals could help foster a constructive conversation. I feel like everyone is attracted to things that require critical thinking towards a certain issue that they could easily visualize and communicate with. The connect program was quite interesting while using our verbal skills only, I can only imagine what the experience would’ve been if we had pictures to share as well in the program to help us visualize our ideas and different backgrounds with people who we do not know much about.
Before knowing my peers, I expected that they would join the program from different places of the world. I also assumed the intercultural aspect would aim to integrate people from completely different backgrounds in order to help them understand each other and how their different cultures helped shape them into who they are today. To my surprise, most of the participants in my team were from Middle Eastern countries, two participants from the USA and one participant from Italy. In that regard, I felt very familiar with the participant’s insights towards several global issues such as identity. For instance, people from Middle Eastern backgrounds would include in their views of how conservative the region tends to me and how keen we are as a population to stick to our traditions and how our ancestors were raised to pass it on to future generations. As a member of the same region, I felt familiar with their views and was able to input easily in the discussions. However, I felt that the other non Arab participants had a difficult time understanding several views and needed more time to agree with the proposed arguments. Also, another drawback was that not all participants were able to attend the meetings. Personally, I have noticed that some participants only showed up once making it very difficult to understand different viewpoints from only 6 members every week by which one of them is non Arab only.
One of the things I enjoyed most with my group is that my facilitator would create weekly polls at the end of the session asking us to choose what we want to discuss next time. In that regard, we felt as if this was our own platform by which we could discuss anything that resonated with us personally. Accordingly, we were able to choose authentic topics of major importance to the world such as identity, culture, violence and mental health. By choosing such intriguing topics, we were constantly adding to the conversation and sharing our perspective in an ongoing cycle. This allowed the facilitator to listen to us openly without having to ask us to participate or take turns in order to make sure everyone is taking part in the discussion. In fact, the facilitator always encouraged us to feel comfortable to share our thoughts freely and view the meeting as an open platform for everyone.
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