Celebrating Women, Celebrating Civic Engagement: A message from Queen Rania of Jordan

Guest post by Talloires Network Intern Alissa Brower. Cross-posted from the Talloires Network blog.

In celebration of International Women’s Day, this article places a spotlight on one female leader who has had a great deal of influence on civic engagement in the Middle East. Recently, the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy & Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo hosted Jordan’s Queen Rania Al-Abdullah who spoke to students about their impact in society and the difference they can make in the larger community.

The objective of Queen Rania’s speech was to encourage students to realize the kind of difference they can make in society and take advantage of attending a university that provides support for civic engagement and community service.

Her majesty started her speech with a story that symbolizes where civic engagement and understanding can start. The story itself can be considered a celebration of women making a difference in the world, as it involves a young girl who wanted to change the living conditions of a less fortunate community. The story begins with Raghda visiting an elderly community outside of central Cairo. Raghda met a woman who invited the girl into her home. What Raghda saw when she stepped inside was nothing like what she had expected. Raghda, accustomed to a very comfortable lifestyle, could not believe a family of eight was living in a one-room home with no floor and no ceiling. When she looked up at what should have been the ceiling, the girl saw a blue sky. At this moment, Raghda realized that something must be done to improve these unsatisfactory living conditions. She felt a responsibility to help these families in need. After having this experience, Raghda El Ebrashi, who is also an AUC alumna, founded Alashanek Ya Balady, an organization that helps families rise above poverty.

(Coincidentally, Queen Rania is not the only one who recognizes Raghda’s dedication to civic engagement. Last year, the Talloires Network awarded Alashanek Ya Balady third place for the MacJannet Prize 2009. To learn more about the program, click here.)

The story showed students of AUC that they have the capability to help those in need; they simply must have the will to put those capabilities to use. And, being students at an institute of higher education provides them the opportunity to implement that will. In her speech, her majesty proclaimed, “Our universities must be incubators of this social blue sky thinking.” The American University in Cairo has embraced this duty, promoting community among its students and allowing “social practice [to take] its place alongside academic theory.” AUC has taken steps toward fostering greater social recognition and development among its students, and the Queen wants other universities to do the same.

Queen Rania addressed the importance of service-learning in the education system. Service-based learning initiatives are gaining more ground in universities worldwide. The Corporation for National and Community Service of the United States, a country that has had one of the longest histories in implementing this initiative, defines service-learning as “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.” Institutes of higher education have adopted this approach of a new system of learning, creating comprehensive curricula that engage both academics and service alike.

AUC has also contributed tremendously to this trend. The Gerhart Center, responsible for providing this speaking opportunity, has been instrumental in promoting civic engagement among its students. Its mission is to serve as a “source of knowledge, a cultivator of partnerships, and a catalyst for innovation, community engagement and a heightened sense of citizenship and social responsibility.” Through its efforts in civic engagement, Arab philanthropy, and research and outreach, the Gerhart Center has become a significant resource at the American University in Cairo, assisting students in becoming responsible citizens of the world.

The university also offers a number of opportunities to engage in service, including community-based academic courses, aiming to make “community service an integral part of the students learning experience.” Queen Rania encouraged AUC to continue to embrace service-learning “so students can balance their quest for a career with their call to help others” and serve as a model for other universities in the Middle East.

Queen Rania has become a major proponent of citizens engaging in community service efforts in their communities. She has used her title and influence to spread this message throughout the Middle East, encouraging citizens to share “a sense of duty and pride in promoting the common good.” Because of her international efforts to enhance the role of citizenship, Queen Rania certainly is one of many women worth celebrating on today’s holiday.

To learn more about International Women’s Day, please visit the website.

The Talloires Network is an international association of institutions committed to strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of higher education.  Tufts University’s Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service and Innovations in Civic Participation serve as the Network’s secretariat.

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