URI’s ‘UnClassroom’: international style

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Experienced-based class to present work at May 6 event

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 2, 2014 – In this internationally focused “UnClassroom” at the University of Rhode Island, students welcome tight, unforgiving deadlines, scrutiny from classmates and the chance to learn firsthand from Afghan women without leaving Kingston.

Officially called Communications 310, Special Topics, the course is actually a partnership between URI’s Harrington School of Communication and Media and the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, a Providence-based non-profit that envisions an Afghanistan in which women participate fully in the governance and development of their country. Its mission is to help create Afghanistan’s future women leaders through higher education in the United States and career guidance.

On May 6, from 4 to 6 p.m. in the Memorial Union Ballroom, 18 students in Daphne Wales’ class will present The Voices of Afghan Women, which will feature the students’ work and the participation of several Afghan women. During the course of the semester, the students created a company, Phoenix Innovations and formed teams with specific responsibilities. They produced deliverables, such as a website, press releases, a video and journal articles that will be presented during the program. Afghan music, rugs and light refreshments will also be part of the program.

The catalyst for the project, Nancy Stricklin, URI assistant to the provost for global strategies, was intrigued by the Afghan women’s initiative and hoped to get URI involved. As a public institution, URI could not offer full scholarships to the women as private school participants do, but she wanted URI to have a role.

“We want to help expand our students’ global competency and cultural understanding,” Stricklin said. “But not all students can get on a plane to study abroad.”

The UnClassroom breaks away from traditional lectures in favor of giving students experience working with a client such as the Afghan women’s initiative. The class was divided into the following teams: web design and social media; organizational communication and strategic design; promotion and event planning, and media relations.

Throughout the semester, the students have worked closely with Christian Wistehuff, executive director of the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women. Twenty-three are enrolled now in mostly private schools. The initiative has 64 graduates.

He said it’s thanks to the efforts of Stricklin and Renee Hobbs, founding director of the Harrington School of Communication, that a partnership was born.

Wistehuff said the UnClassroom is one of the most powerful examples of experiential learning he has ever seen.

“The students will walk away from the class with a portfolio, which will include real products they developed,” Wistehuff said. “They are also learning the story of Afghan women who have not had a voice.”

Juliana Kurucz, a senior double major in communication studies and film studies from North Kingstown, said she has completed two internships while at URI, but said this experience has been like an accelerated internship.

“We have to produce real deliverables, we face real deadlines and things go wrong,” Kurucz said. “There is no comparison to my other classes. I haven’t taken anything like this in my four years here.”

Nathan Sloan, a sophomore communication studies major with a minor in film media, said the class has prepared him for the business world because he and his classmates are working for a real client.

“In this class, the students have been learning from each other,” said the Cheltenham, Pa. resident. “In this class, I might go over my work 20 times because it is my passion. I am proving to my fellow students and our client that I have learned and produced.”

Kurucz and Sloan said they have also learned lessons about a region of the world and the women who live there.

“I had a chance to interview one of the Afghan students who is studying film,” Kurucz said. “She is a true overachiever, but she is also my peer.”

“I am amazed by their courage,” Sloan said. “The women who come here trust us even though our country has been attacking them. We are getting to know these women and they are becoming our friends.”