Each week, a group of Columbia students engages in diplomacy from the comfort of dorm rooms.
Columbia’s new chapter of Dorm Room Diplomacy, which connects students at universities across the Middle East and the United States through video conference discussions of current events, joins nine other U.S. universities—including Harvard, Yale, and Penn—as well as 18 universities across the Middle East.
Chapter President Eliot Sackler, CC ’15, said Dorm Room Diplomacy is “a chance to exchange perspectives from the Middle East and the U.S. on subjects that bring the populations together.”
“Dorm Room Diplomacy seeks to go beyond the often stilted dialogue we have on campus on issues that are far from home and connect Columbia students to their peers living and breathing life in the Middle East,” Josh Fattal, CC ’15, next semester’s DRD co-president and a Spectator opinion columnist, said in an email. “It really fulfills one of the primary reasons we go to college: to learn from the other.”
Molly Stein, CC ’15, noted one particular instance in which she encountered an opinion she hadn’t expected during a conference call.
“There’s a boy in my group who lives in Afghanistan, and we were talking about American intervention in the region. He said America coming in was the best thing that happened to his country, which surprised everyone. Of course, he isn’t representing everyone in Afghanistan, but he felt that he and his family had gained a lot in terms of education—he and his older siblings were all able to go to university, which wasn’t possible before America intervened,” she said in an email.
Many of the group’s participants stressed that DRD hopes to provide an environment in which students can discuss these issues with open minds, leaving preconceptions and political allegiances at the door.
“I think many groups on campus come into discussions with a certain point of view or agenda,” Morgan Romey, CC ’15 and DRD’s campus outreach/marketing director, said in an email. “DRD wishes to be unbiased and to encourage different parties to be understanding and open to productive dialogue.”
This objective was manifested in DRD’s first on-campus event on Nov. 18, which featured a talk by political science professor Eric Blanchard on the plans of President Barack Obama, CC ’83, to reduce and reassign U.S. presence in the Middle East. The talk was followed by breakout discussions among the 20 attendees, facilitated by DRD board members.
DRD members hope that such events will foster conversations between on-campus groups on both sides of the aisle. The first event, for example, was co-sponsored by Garin Lavi, Hillel’s student center for Israel and Zionist thought, and Turath, the Arab student organization on campus.
The group has not yet made any concrete plans for future events, but Stein said DRD is discussing the possibility of more panels and discussions, as well as video conferences, to help relay its project to the larger campus community. DRD members said that the individual discussions they have had this term have been transformative for their perspective on U.S.-Middle East relations.
“I have been very impressed by the caliber of students that DRD brings into the video conferences. All of the students are very well-spoken and involved in different groups on their respective campuses, which makes it easy to cultivate friendships,” Romey said. “One of the main themes I’ve heard throughout my video conferences is a desire for a more neutral U.S.: one that encourages discussion and peace instead of asserting itself and taking sides.”
Sackler added that he feels one of the most important parts of the project is the ability to connect with students he would not otherwise meet.
“The human aspect—being able to break through facts, figures, and media sources to an individual witnessing the events—is the most valuable aspect of DRD,” Sackler said.