A non-profit group is using modern technology to bring college students in middle America face to face with university students in other countries. The tool is live videoconferencing, which allows the young people to see each other in real time and exchange frank views on major world issues.
Americans for Informed Democracy's goal is to reduce anti-American sentiments overseas, in part by showing the diversity of views in the United States, and to make Americans more aware of world opinions of U.S. foreign policy.
And at a recent series of town-hall meetings hosted by the group, it was clear that face-to-face dialogue was a powerful tool in communicating these views. The event, punctuated by spirited conversation, linked students at U.S. colleges with universities in the Muslim world and Africa through live video-conferencing.
Some of the participant schools included U.S. colleges in Illinois, Indiana, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. The schools overseas included institutes in Egypt, Indonesia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan and Turkey.
One recent videoconference involved students at the University of Texas at Austin and Emory University in the United States, They exchanged views with students at the Senegal Center for Distance Education and the Uganda Management Institute. Ninety-five percent of Senegal's population is Muslim, while only 16 percent of Ugandans are Muslim.
Iraq was the main focus of this discussion.
Jonathan, a college student in Texas, said he continues to support the U.S.-led military action in Iraq, even though no weapons of mass destruction have been found there. He said the removal of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is a good thing. "We believe that Saddam himself was a weapon of mass destruction, and that the world is better off without him in power," he said.
Dora, a student from Uganda Management Institute, agreed. She said she believes the U.S.-led war on Iraq was the right thing to do. "And has this made the world safer? I think yes, a hundred times. It has made the world safer by invading Iraq."
She pointed to Libya, saying she believes Tripoli gave up its nuclear weapons program after it saw what happened in Iraq.
Most of Dora's fellow classmates, though, had a sharply different point of view. "Many people, especially in Uganda, thought that the war on Iraq was quite wrong. So, now it is a good opportunity that we're going to share these views," he said.
That was a Ugandan student named Dennis. Another student with the same name said he believes the United States should make greater efforts to work with other countries.
"If America thinks that it is wise to act the way it has done, then probably it should have reliable intelligence information. And you do not get reliable intelligence information by antagonizing yourself from other nations. You need cooperation from other nations," he said. "This is my view."
Another Ugandan student said he believes the killing of innocent civilians in Iraq only creates more potential terrorists, who will want to take revenge on the United States in the future. "When you see the numbers of very innocent civilians, children and others who have died in Iraq, you will find that America, in itself, is actually promoting terrorism," he said.
In Senegal, students said they believe that violence is not the solution to terrorism. Terrance, who studies at the Senegal Center for Distance Education, said he believes there are better ways the United States could use the millions of dollars it has been spending on the Iraq military campaign.
"I think if the United States want to eradicate terrorism, they should attack what causes terrorism," he said. "And I think what causes terrorism today is, as some of my fellow students pointed out, poverty and illiteracy. So, they (the U.S.) should help people to overcome poverty and illiteracy."
Back in the U.S. state of Georgia, American student Molly echoed her Senegalese colleague. "I think that poverty, illiteracy and the AIDS crisis, I think that they are all areas where the world is becoming unstable because of these things," he said. "And yes, we do need to fight for these things to be addressed instead of just relying on traditional threats and using traditional power."
During the videoconference, the American students, especially, expressed very different points of view. A student named Gretchen wanted the United States to completely pull out of the United Nations. Her classmate, Colin, accused the United States of always acting in its own self-interest. Meanwhile, immigrant student Udai expressed optimism that average Americans are becoming more engaged in in-depth debates on politics and U.S. foreign policy.
Joshua Goldstein, of Americans for Informed Democracy, said videoconferencing provides an important way for U.S. citizens to exchange views with people in other countries.
"I think we're moving toward a world where borders mean less and less, and the ability to discuss across borders, using technology, using the Internet, using common cultures, hip-hop is universal in some sense, there's all these things that are bringing us closer together," he said.
The Global Development Learning Network, a worldwide partnership of about 70 distance learning centers, provided the videoconferencing capability. The network is headquartered at the World Bank, where official Bruno Donat praises it for bringing people closer together.
"When it works well, it's magic," he said.
He adds that although the technology is not always foolproof, any shortcomings are outweighed by the benefits of being able to share knowledge in real time, and across cultures and national borders.