By Hannah Johnston
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When I joined Georgia Southern’s Model Arab League (MAL) team, I was really just looking for a club where I could use some of the material I was learning in my classes and maybe make a few friends along the way. Like most new MAL members, I felt a little lost, between the piles of research and the rules of parliamentary procedure I started to think I had gotten myself into more than I originally thought. But by the time my first conference rolled around I felt confident and prepared thanks to the help of Emily Krout and all the other MAL veterans.
At that first conference in beautiful Tampa, Florida, my partner and I represented the small Gulf nation of Qatar. I knew very little about Qatar before preparing for the conference, but the research I conducted in preparation sparked my interest. Wow! What an interesting and unique State. I had to know more. But, what simple Google searches provide as far as information on the tiny nation truly only scratches the surface.
But wait, I’m getting off track, back to the conference. With the help of my partner, Granville Winkjer, we were awarded Outstanding Delegation for the Representation of Qatar. Cool, right? They gave us a very official certificate, commended us on our efforts, and sent us off back to Statesboro satisfied with our hard work, and ready to get started again next year. I didn’t think much else of it – at least until my faculty advisors submitted our names to the National Council on U.S. Arab Relations, which oversees the MALs across the country, among many other things, and I was given the opportunity to apply for a Study-Visit to Qatar. Which I thought was awesome enough by itself. Unconvinced I would ever be chosen for such an opportunity, I happily applied.
And I was chosen. I think I might have screamed. First I called my mom, who immediately began researching travel tips and, of course, everything she could about Qatar. Then I ran (more of a sad jog or an impressive speed walk) to my professor’s office to tell him the news. Both Professors Salhi and Lubecki were elated. Dr. Lubecki would also be chosen to travel with me as a faculty advisor. I couldn’t wait. But I had to, at least until Thanksgiving Break, when our adventure would begin.
The National Council on U.S. Arab Relations would fly us out to Qatar at the beginning of Thanksgiving break, and we would return at the end of the week. During the visit, we met with dignitaries, government officials, military personnel and many other interesting Qatari individuals. We visited places of business, government facilities, religious sites, historical locations, gorgeous natural spaces and much more. But what would strike me the most about this fascinating nation, far beyond the wonders of architecture, the long and rich history of the country, and the interesting government policies that have been modernizing and progressing the nation through periods of trial, were the people.
This, ultimately, would be the recurring theme of the trip. Every individual I spoke with, personally or in a group setting, wanted me to convey the same message to my community back home. There are many difference between life in Statesboro, Georgia and Doha Qatar, but it is not quite as different as you might think. Really, it’s the minute and often insignificant that differentiates us, like pedestrian crossing signs that feature Qatari traditional dress, as opposed to our business suit wearing pedestrians, and perhaps you might only be able to recognize the local McDonalds by its golden arches and not by its neon sign in Arabic letters.
This is part one the message the people of Qatar wanted me to share; life is life. We are different only in our expressions of self, there is very little fundamentally that separates us beside distance itself. We all pursue the same happiness, we might just achieve it in different ways. All of our other differences – cultural, political, economic, religious – make up the second part of the message: the wonder of diversity.
One question that I asked each of the people I met during my short visit to Qatar was this: what do you want my American peers to know about the people of Qatar? And though each answer contained different features or sentiments, they all expressed the themes of sameness. But what’s more most had another message they found critical I convey back to my community – the importance of diversity.
The general sentiment of those I came into contact with on this tour of Qatar was that one of the defining characteristics of American success in the eyes of the Qatari people is diversity. This is because, according to those who were patient enough to answer our group’s many questions, diversity allows the exchange of human experience. The interacting of people with differing perspectives empowers the progression of comprehensive solutions to complex problems. It allows the flow of ideas to persist past the confines of individual experience and into that of intersectionality. Diversity encourages improvement and demand progress. They caution us not to forget this in our disagreements with one another.
I find this message to be hopeful and encouraging, especially among college students today. The abundance of opinions, perspectives, and experiences are vital to the advancement of not only our nation but all nations. My trip to Qatar opened my eyes in so many ways, many of which I can’t wait to share with my community this year through several activities across campus in the Spring and Fall.
What I learned in one short week has altered my world view, deepened my understanding of and connection with people of another culture, and vastly changed my college experience. I am grateful to the National Council on U.S. Arab relations for such an opportunity, and equally grateful to the people of Qatar for welcoming us so warmly and inviting us to experience Qatar.
The experiences and opportunities that I have received from participating in Georgia Southern’s Model Arab League have completely changed the trajectory of my life. Had you told me that I would travel across the world with other bright students as a delegation from the National Council on U.S. Arab Relations at my first MAL meeting, well.. In any case, you never know what doors you might open, so why not try!
Hannah Johnston is a senior international studies and Arabic major. She is currently serving as the VP of Georgia Southern University’s Model Arab League. She is also a member of the GS Model United Nations team.