My overall experience with the Connect Program was entirely different than what I expected, not from the group or the facilitator but from myself. I have never really thought of myself as someone who would initiate a conversation in a room full people, as I can be extremely shy at times. However, through this program I was able to participate at times when the entire room was quite and I voluntarily began answering questions, in order to have a well-rounded conversation. This was definitely a change I noticed in myself throughout the sessions and time-by-time it began to get easier for me to participate, hence more interesting. I was proud to see that my participation actually mattered, because my group members would subsequently respectfully state their opinions and later compare the different circumstances present in each area. Fortunately, a change I noticed in others was being able to break common conversational barriers, such as: Awkwardness, shyness, being defensive and so on. I was glad to see that as a group we were able to overcome this, as it increased the value of dialogue and created a friendly setting. Additionally, step-by-step we all started to share personal experiences, in opposition to the beginning where everyone would share common political or social issues, but exclude anything personal.
Furthermore, an essential skill that I developed throughout the sessions is certainly mindful thinking. Having diverse conversations, with people I have no personal/face-to-face experience with, was like a ‘wake-up call’ for me, mainly because I usually do not filter my words, therefore, things I say sometimes can be blunt. However, throughout the sessions I had to be extremely cautious, in order to respect all members and avoid offending anyone. This skill is definitely beneficial because it helped me become a more considerate person, thus creating more space for open-minded discussions.
A major challenge I faced was the idea of representing my culture to others. Being part of the Middle East, I understand that different areas of the world have controversial opinions regarding our lifestyles and traditions. Therefore, I had to make sure to be honest while explaining a particular trait or situation present in our culture, however, I also tried my best to help others understand that most of the events that the media covers can be misperceived. This highlights the skill of thinking mindfully, as I had to avoid being biased by supporting the region unfairly and instead focused more on being honest.
A topic of discussion that really influenced my train of thought was when all group members shared their daily routine. It was interesting to see that we all share so much in common – both the good and the bad – particularly the obstacles we all face through university. The entire group was able to connect and laugh with one another because we were able to easily relate to the situation. This was certainly a meaningful discussion because it was not about political or social issues, as it only focused on what we, as humans share on a daily basis.
Finally, my overall experience was very pleasant and exceeded my expectations. I was happy to see that technological advancements can be used for good purposes, as I believe that understanding and exploring different cultures is essential, because only exploring your own personal/cultural bubble limits the spectrum of thought and creates a greater divide between all people. Therefore, being able to connect with others and understand different outlooks – some of which never crossed my mind before – was a meaningful experience and will certainly help me through other circumstances.