Deena Mansour Commentary: “Broadening Perspectives: A Montana Youth Leadership Program”

The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at The University of Montana was founded 30 years ago to honor the life work of Senator Mike Mansfield and his wife, Maureen Hayes Mansfield. Before I launch into my topic, I would like to note that today, we join the family in grieving the loss of the only child of the Mansfields. Anne Mansfield passed away on April 24 at the age of 74. Our thoughts are with her daughter Caroline Marris and her family and friends around the world.

In a recent commentary, I shared Mike Mansfield’s strong interest in fostering youth. In his 1989 Message to Future Generations, he noted the importance of youth making the effort to understand people from around the world, and the importance of “accommodation and compromise, knowledge and understanding.”

In support of Mansfield’s vision, the Mansfield Center successfully competed for grant funding for the U.S. Department of State’s American Youth Leadership Program. This is a relatively new initiative of the State Department, designed to prepare youth leaders to become responsible citizens and spark in them an interest in foreign cultures. Our goal is to support Montana youth to develop cultural understanding so that they may advance international dialogue and compete effectively in the global economy. The University of Montana is host to one of only seven such programs in the country, and the only one for Cambodia.

As a result of this grant, the Mansfield Center is honored to support the travel of 20 high school students and two high school teachers to Cambodia for a month this summer. From a pool of nearly 160 applicants, we were honored to accept many future leaders of our state. They hail from towns large and small, including such communities as Opheim, Shelby and Ronan.

These 15-17 year olds are incredibly courageous to sign-on for this program. Most have never been out of the U.S. before. They have made a commitment to leave their family and friends behind for a month, relying on one another, program staff, and the support of strangers. They’ll experience heat like they’ve never felt, and eat food that they have never imagined. They’ll be immersed in a society that speaks Khmer: a completely different alphabet, vocabulary, and set of sounds.

We’ve heard from a number of them that others in their communities have questioned why they would ever want to do such a thing. In response, one student wrote, “I strongly believe that one of the most important things in life is seeing different perspectives and experiencing as much as one can of our complex world. Traveling to Cambodia would open my eyes to things I have not yet had the chance to see, and get me started in a lifetime of unique and wonderful experiences.” Another said, “…living on one of seven reservations in Montana, opportunities for many Native American teenagers are few and too far apart. When this opportunity presented itself to expand my outlook, I couldn’t have been more positive that this trip was something I was meant to do…. Researching Cambodians and hearing their stories, I kept thinking how Cambodians and Native Americans are not too different. I know I could create a relationship and connections with Cambodian people that could possibly last a lifetime.”

The focus of this group is on shared challenges in the environment and climate change. They’ll be taking lessons learned from our Montana environment, and contrasting them with new ideas learned from Cambodian partners. But more than just natural resources, the group will be learning about culture and society, including some hard issues, such as the genocide of an estimated two million people during the Khmer Rouge era. Our Montanans will visit the Killing Fields of Cheung Ek, where the trees are marked with blood of babies and children, and the ground still littered with their bone fragments.

The group will not travel unprepared. An important aspect of this program is an intense six-month preparation period, in the form of readings, webinars, and speakers. One of the students, Angus from Ovando, noted how much he has learned about the Cambodian genocide, noting, “Education is one of the most critical factors in preventing mass slaughter. Most of the Khmer Rouge soldiers were uneducated youth that were susceptible to the influence of the regime. The modern youth of Cambodia should be provided a secondary education, even though that’s easier said than done. But children should also be informed of what really did happen during the regime rather than being neglected that information.”

In terms of educating our own children, we’re honored that the Mansfield Center is doing its part to broaden Montana perspectives.

You’ll be able to follow the students’ visit to Cambodia starting in mid-June, on our website at umt.edu/Mansfield. We hope you’ll join them as they experience this great adventure.

Deena Mansour writes on behalf of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center.

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Deena Mansour Commentary: “Engaging Youth in Global Affairs”

Aside

In a life spanning nearly a century, Mike Mansfield left enduring marks on Montana, the U.S., and international diplomacy. Rising from work in Butte copper mines to lead the U.S. Senate and serve as our nation’s ambassador to Japan, he was respected for his wisdom, integrity, and leadership.

Mike Mansfield had a strong interest in fostering youth. In 1989, he gave a talk entitled, Message to Future Generations. He stated: “You are living in a world that is shrinking, the globe is becoming a neighborhood….We are going to have to understand each other better. And we’ll have to recognize that regardless of where we come from, no matter what our color or background, we all initially sprang from the same source. We’ll have to learn to get along with one another. We’ll have to be more aware of responsibilities which go with this rapidly speeding up world….It will be a matter of accommodation and compromise, knowledge and understanding.”

In Mike Mansfield’s name, the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center of The University of Montana has created a number of programs with the goal of empowering young people as positive forces in our communities and engaging them in international affairs and public policy. We start at an early age to foster mutual understanding between the people of the U.S. and the people of other countries in order to promote peaceful relations, as well as to better prepare Montana youth for the challenges of today’s global economy.

A prime example of our efforts toward this mission is a new program we’ve just launched in Montana: The American Youth Leadership Program for Cambodia. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, the program provides 20 Montana high school students and two high school teachers with an all-expense-paid trip to Cambodia to gain firsthand knowledge of a foreign country through the prism of global environmental issues. The group will experience Cambodia through visits to the capitol city of Phnom Penh and its nearby beaches; the forests of the Cardamom Mountains; and the floating villages and ancient temples at Siem Reap. Recognizing the importance of people-to-people relationships, our Montana students will be partnered with Cambodian high school students and live with host families.

Despite the differences in geography and climate, Cambodian and Montanan students will find many commonalities. Timber and forestry issues of the Cardamom Mountains parallel those of the Bitterroots. Lake depth, fish conservation, and pollution are concerns both in Tonle Sap Lake of Cambodia–the largest lake in Southeast Asia–and Flathead Lake in Montana–the largest lake west of the Mississippi. And ecotourism is of great concern in each region.

From an historical perspective, critical program components will include a visit to the ancient temples of Angkor Wat and an exploration of how that kingdom crumbled. The group will also have the sobering experience of learning about the Khmer Rouge era of 1975-1979, which resulted in the deaths of nearly two million Cambodians – approximately 25% of their population, and twice the population of Montana.

We at the Mansfield Center are honored to bring this project – the only one of its kind in the United States – to Montana. It serves to prepare youth leaders to become responsible citizens and contributing members of their communities. At the same time, it helps to develop a cadre of Americans with experience engaging in international dialogue, which will better equip them to communicate and interact with international representatives of the global economy: a key goal of UM’s Global Leadership Initiative. They’ll also learn new tools for taking action on environmental issues, locally and globally. For more information on this project, including application materials, please see our website at http://www.umt.edu/mansfield.

Senator Mansfield closed his message to future generations with the following: “you have been given a great challenge and what you do will determine what your successors will be. So I wish you all good luck and, as the Asians usually say, good health, good fortune, much happiness, and a long life.” On behalf of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center, I wish you all the same.

Deena Mansour Commentary: “Public Diplomacy in the Context of a New Egypt”

As we in Montana and across the U.S. watch political developments in Egypt, I follow the daily news with greater interest than most. The uncertainties of Arab Spring are quite personal to me: my parents immigrated to the U.S. from Egypt more than 45 years ago. While born an American in the heartland of Iowa, I am Deena Fathi Abdel-Aziz Ali Mansour, named in the tradition after my father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather.
You could call my family an American success story. My father was the oldest of seven children raised in a two-bedroom apartment in Ibrahimaya, one of the poorest districts in Alexandria. During the turmoil of the Arab-Israeli conflict, my parents moved to the U.S. to further their educations. Making their way to Wyoming, my father became a university professor, my mother a librarian. Growing up, I lived in Egypt for three short years, though that cultural immersion was tempered by my enrollment in the protected enclave of an American high school.
My experiences as a first-generation American shaped my desire to serve our country. Upon graduating from college with a degree in international relations, I passed the foreign service exam and specialized in public diplomacy. This branch of diplomacy promotes our national interest by informing foreign publics and broadening dialogue between Americans and people across the world. I loved the work, but after eight years in the service, including four years in southeast Asia, it was time to come home. I was fortunate to receive the opportunity to implement similar programs at The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at The University of Montana. The Mansfield Center has as its dual mission a commitment to ethics in public policy as well as fostering mutual understanding between the U.S. and Asia. We have many private and public partners in these efforts, including the Departments of State, Defense, and Education.
My husband and I always planned to take our two children to Egypt to introduce them to that heritage. The importance of such a trip grew as a boy in my 9-year-old son’s class announced one day that all Egyptians were terrorists. In the wake of 9/11, we decided that we all needed this opportunity to learn about a culture so distant from our own.
When we initially conceived of the trip, Egypt had been firmly under Mubarak’s rule for nearly 30 years. We celebrated Arab Spring and watched as the military has shifted from its initial role of protector of the Tahrir Square demonstrators to its increasingly authoritarian rule, and as the Islamic Brotherhood has risen from the banned to the legally victorious. It was a unique window for our family to learn more than we had initially expected — to see democracy being born.
We spent three weeks in Egypt last month, staying just long enough to witness the first phase of the presidential elections. We met people throughout the country, from the cities of Cairo and Alexandria to smaller communities in the south and in the Sinai. We felt the economic desperation in a country where Arab Spring was driven as much by unemployment as a desire for political freedom. Our awe at the ancient Wonders of the World was tempered by the vendors crowding around us with pleas to help them feed their families.
More than anything, however, we felt hope for the future. My children played with their young cousins, sharing Arabic and English phrases with one another. We celebrated with my six aunts and their families as supporters of various political candidates distributed literature along the Mediterranean Sea on the Corniche, in the shadow of the great Library of Alexandria. While my aunts all wear the hegab to cover their heads, they shared their differing opinions on who they supported – some the military, some the liberals, some the Muslim Brotherhood. We rejoiced in this bounty of choice for the first time in their lives. We met people like Hamdy the Taxi Driver, who had earned a philosophy degree 40 years ago yet spent his life as a Japanese chef. Understandably, he was more philosophical than most, explaining that good times would come, but that there would first be a hard 10 years ahead. Our final photo of that trip shows a friend with an inked finger held high, proof of his vote, and of his hopes for an emerging democracy.
My children returned home having seen firsthand that people across the world – of a Muslim faith, speaking a strange language, and living in completely different circumstances – have the same hopes and aspirations as we do here in Missoula: happiness, health, and stability for our children and for our community. And knowing with certainty that all Egyptians are certainly not terrorists.
We at the Mansfield Center look forward to soon announcing new opportunities for high school students and professionals across Montana to have the same learning opportunity, but in Asia. For more information about our programs, see us on the web at http://www.umt.edu/mansfield.
Deena Mansour writes on behalf of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center.