From the classroom to the real world: How Laurier students are helping international scholars overcoming war

ISOW, International Students Overcoming War, Laurier University, international conflict, global affairs, Wilfrid Laurier, Stephanie Lee

Stephanie Lee (far right) is one of the Assistant Directors of Public Affairs for Laurier’s International Students Overcoming War (ISOW) program.

Taking your research from the classroom or lab and into the real world is always a goal of many university researchers.

For Wilfrid Laurier professor and global affairs researcher Gavin Brockett, the wheels were set in motion almost four years ago during a first-year seminar on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As the students were finishing their final projects, one of the proposals included creating an initiative that partnered with the Daughters for Life Foundation to help young women affected by conflict in the Middle East receive a university education.

Within months, a student-led initiative eventually called International Students Overcoming War (ISOW) was born—its goal being to extend its reach to both male and female students from war-torn homes.

“It’s a very unique initiative, there’s really nothing like it at Laurier or at other universities across Canada,” says Stephanie Lee, one of the ISOW’s Assistant Directors of Public Affairs, and a fourth-year Global Studies and Political Science student. “It allows students to make a real impact in global conflicts in a way that’s accessible to them. We impact lives of those who have been affected by conflict, but our lives are also impacted. It’s a very enriching experience.”

ISOW’s student leaders work closely with the university to establish partnerships with international organizations such as Jusoor and Daughters for Life to provide full scholarships to students from war-torn countries.

Partner organizations act as liaisons between the prospective international students and the university, weeding through thousands of applications. The organizations present the finalists to the ISOW management team, which then forward their recommendations to the university for selection.

As a result of a new commitment by Laurier to help offset international student tuition fees this last winter, ISOW looks forward to welcoming six additional Scholars this September—the program provided support for two students in fall of 2015 and four in fall of 2016.

“It was amazing, we worked very hard to get increased funding,” says Lee. “We’re really, really excited that we are able to accept more Scholars.”

Learning a new culture

Mayar Tharowat, President Gold Scholarship, Max Blouw, Paul Jessop, Laurier University, ISOW, International Students Overcoming War

Mayar Tharowat (centre) receives the President Gold Scholarship from former Laurier President Max Blouw (right) and Dean of Science Paul Jessop.

Mayar Tharowat was one of the students who arrived at Laurier in September 2015 from Cairo, sponsored by the Daughters for Life and Laurier. Now a third-year Physics student at Laurier, Tharowat recalls her first steps into a new culture.

“I was a little bit nervous about my new life and the new change,” says Tharowat. “But I found myself not alone. When Dr. Abuelaish [founder of Daughters for Life] and Dr. Brockett picked us up from the airport, we went for an Arabian breakfast in Toronto, it felt so familiar, like I was home! I realized [the ISOW members] were not just providers of the scholarship, but they are also like family to us.”

Helping scholars transition both academically and culturally is one of the mandates of ISOW, where members offer advice, including academic, and help scholars navigate their new world. It’s not unlikely for members and scholars to form deeper friendships, keeping in touch throughout the summer and outside of school, according to Lee.

“I’m always so grateful for having such an amazing supportive community at Laurier,” says Tharowat. “One of the things that helped me have a sense of Canadian culture was the gathering events held by ISOW. For example, I had no experience with Canadian holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas. It was really an amazing experience to celebrate those times with other ISOW members and scholars.

“What I find unique about ISOW, is that they don’t just provide money and then leave the rest for the students to figure out. Instead, ISOW is an integrated community that works through everything from the start to the end.”

Tharowat cites the help she received understanding Canadian renting culture when she was looking for off-campus housing as one of the many examples of ISOW support.

Combatting gender inequality in STEM

Besides wanting a better education and to broaden her worldview, Tharowat, as one of four sisters, applied to study abroad to combat some of the gender biases she faced in Egypt, particularly when it came to science.

“Even though my parents supported my sisters and me, when I heard people consoling my parents for not having sons, that made me feel sad,” says Tharowat, who placed bronze in I-SWEEP, an international science fair in Houston. “However, I accepted the challenge. I wanted to prove that it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl, it’s who you are that matters.

“Studying abroad so far is an amazing experience to have. It’s given me new perspectives on different ways of living and, in return, I’ve shared my culture in an integrated community.”

Although not sure where she wants to go after graduation, Tharowat plans to get her Master’s and then PhD in physics, to become a researching cosmologist physicist.

While the majority of ISOW scholars are undergraduate students, one graduate student has already graduated from Laurier and remains in Ontario to work and continue further studies, while a second graduate student will graduate in October. Three more will begin in September. The majority of Scholars come from Syria, according to Lee, but others are from Lebanon, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.

Researching to make an impact

As part of the ISOW program, Brockett offers active learning and directive studies courses for members where they learn about issues ranging from global conflicts to humanitarianism and trauma.

“The topics pertain to the work we’re doing for ISOW,” says Lee. “We’re learning a lot of skills that will be useful to us in our lives outside of university. One of our big term projects was a legacy project where students did relevant research to match the work they were doing for ISOW. For example, one student drafted a fundraising model report, while another planned ISOW’s end-of-term visit to Parliament.

“We’re all really proud of what we’ve achieved in the last three or four years and are all really excited to meet the new Scholars. It’s been great becoming friends with the current ones.”

To find out more about Laurier’s ISOW program, visit http://www.isow.ca/.

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