by Stephen Largen of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal
A trio of students from Converse College’s powerhouse Model Arab League team recently helped export the debating and research skills they honed in Spartanburg to high school students in the Middle East.
Seniors Stephanie Jennings, Katie Hudson and Monica Lineberger, the head delegates of Converse’s Model Arab League debate team, went to Amman, Jordan, earlier this month to work with students from Montessori schools there.
Model Arab League is an academic debate forum in which students take on the roles and interests of Arab nations. Converse’s program has been around since 1988, when it was started by department of history and politics chairman Joe Dunn.
Several years ago, members of the Converse team went to Jordan to help teach debate skills to students, but the relationship had become dormant in recent years until a teacher last year reached out again to Dunn.
While several of the schools, including some from Egypt, pulled out of this month’s youth conference in Amman due to concerns about travel amid unrest in the Middle East, the Converse students said the experience was still rewarding despite the presence of just two Jordanian schools at the four-day event.
“What was amazing is that they did it all in English, and they’re high school students,” Lineberger said.
The students said not only the students they helped teach but also the people of Amman were welcoming and surprisingly inquisitive about the students interest in their country and speaking Arabic.
“They were very open,” Jennings said. “They really enjoyed having us and made no secret of that.”
Although the students were in Jordan to oversee and instruct Jordanian students, the Converse students were able to soak up perspective and insight from Palestinians they met in Jordan that the students will be able to use in the national Model Arab League event they will compete in this April in Washington, D.C.
An integral part of the scoring process for the national competition and similar regional events is how well students represent the viewpoint and history of the nation they are selected to represent. Students draft bills and policies and present them to their peers representing other nations.
This year, the 22-member Converse team will represent Palestine. “It gives you an entirely different perspective,” Jennings said of the experience meeting with Palestinians in Jordan. “It’s one thing to sit here and to research on the computer about the political situation there. It’s another thing entirely to go there and experience and meet people and hear their perspectives on it. Now more so than ever, we’re going to be able to get into that role and understand that role.”
Before the national event, members of Converse’s team will compete on their own campus in the Southeast regional competition. Hosting regional events and competing nationally is nothing new for Converse Model Arab League teams. At the college, which has made a habit of taking home awards and defeating institutions such as Harvard in prior national competitions, participation in the Model Arab League is so intense that students receive course credit and a grade for their work.
“It’s a very intensive experience,” Jennings said. “Once you get up to the national level, things get really competitive.”
The competitive aspect of Model Arab League suits Dunn, the Converse department head, just fine. He speaks with great pride in recounting the national success and respect from other institutions his Converse program has earned, and the intellectual rewards it’s brought to generations of students. “It is the best teaching tool I’ve seen in my 40 years in the classroom,” Dunn said. “The skills it develops are skills that are transferable to anything they are interested in.”