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Needham High builds a global connection

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By Matt Liberman
Hometown Weekly Intern

While Ethan Lee remained focused on the screen at the front of his U.S. history class, every other head in the class turned toward teacher Doug Stanczak in awe, shock, and curiosity.

In a video call between an 11th-grade U.S. history class at Needham High School and a class over 6,600 miles away in the Kandahar (Afghanistan) Institute of Modern Studies (KIMS), the two classes discussed what education meant to them. In the United States, the students at Needham said, education is a luxury. It allows students to build futures for themselves, but it is hard, it is tedious, and can often be very frustrating.

In Kandahar, education is life.

“Something that we take for granted in the United States, this is their ticket out of poverty and maybe even harm’s way.”

This was just one part of an hour-long call between the two classes in an effort to learn what life is like for a culture on the other side of the world. Lee, a junior at Needham High School who proposed the video chat, is a voluntary tutor for an organization called Pax Populi – Latin for “the people’s peace” – an organization whose aim is eliminate conflict and bring the world together through education. Founded by Bentley University professor Robert McNulty, who was in attendance for this video chat, Pax Populi’s mission is to bring people together through learning - and show that people are more similar than they think.

Lee is just one of two non-adult volunteers, McNulty said, and when he inquired about the idea of a video call between his class and students at the Kandahar Institute of Modern Studies, all parties loved the idea. KIMS students had never had an experience like this before, McNulty said, and neither did the Needham students. It is something that he had been hoping to initiate for a long time.

Before the 8 a.m. call on June 4, Stanczak’s students had to prepare a list of questions and talking points they wanted to discuss with the Afghani students. Most ideas focused on their daily lives and trying to discover what their routines were like. What do they do for fun? What do they study? What kind of animals do they have?

Both sides shared many experiences. They studied similar subjects in school, like biology, chemistry and math. They played sports after school, although KIMS students typically focused on soccer and cricket, while Needham students had a wider variety from which to choose. And they come home to similar pets, like dogs.

But they also faced many differences, some much heavier than others. Many KIMS students, for example, own peacocks, something which left many NHS students chuckling at the idea of having one. But these students also face a much harsher lifestyle. There were no women in the KIMS class because the call happened at 4 p.m. Kandahar time; by that point in the day, all the girls have to be bussed home together for protection. They cannot walk or bike to school on their own like males can.

Much of Afghanistan struggles with the idea of gender equality, McNulty said, especially in the classroom. KIMS offers 90 percent of their scholarships to females. The school is steadfast on women receiving an equal education as men, McNulty said, which can put the female students in grave danger, as well as any administrators or educators. There is a real fear of assassination, McNulty said.

“That’s something [we’ve] never had to consider,” Lee said. “It was a really eye-opening experience for both sides of the call.”

But while it is incredible that KIMS looks for such a diverse student body and emphasizes gender equality so vehemently, McNulty said, people around the world do not know this.

That is why this type of a video call is so important.

“If you say the word ‘Afghanistan’ to anybody in the United States, 99 percent of them are going to have a terrible image,” McNulty said. “[We’re] trying to get people to open their eyes and their hearts to a shared humanity. [The KIMS students are] getting a sense that people care about them.”

The astonishment continued when the two sides discussed the prominence of education in their lives. During the call, NHS students explained that education was important to their lives, but something that they certainly took for granted, because “it’s expected of everyone to get an education.”

Stanczak’s class kept a transcript of questions and answers. When asked what school and education meant, one student said the following: “Education is a dream. Education means life to me.”

“The kids that get to go to school know that this is the only way to get themselves out of a dire and very impoverished life,” McNulty said.

This call, Lee said, was a chance to disprove misconceptions that people have of Afghanistan and an opportunity to display true Afghani culture and livelihood. Although their lives may consist of much more social struggle, Afghani kids go to school to receive an education to build their futures the same way that American kids do. Lee wanted his fellow classmates to see and experience everything that he had in his tutoring through Pax Populi.

At the end of the allotted hour, everyone on both sides exited the call beaming. Stanczak’s students repeatedly asked why they haven’t had experiences like this during their school careers thus far and pleaded for more future opportunities. They also discussed wanting to have future conversations focused on other parts of their lives, not just school.

“They were thrilled to do this,” Stanczak said. “They felt like they were making a small difference by talking to someone halfway around the world and trying to break down barriers.”

The Needham chapter of the National Honor Society, which Stanczak administrates, requires a certain number of hours of tutoring. Now, after this call, tutoring students at the Kandahar Institute of Modern Studies is an option to earn those hours, and make a difference on the other side of the world.

Faculty and administration at Needham High are also working to make sure that they can continue to talk to KIMS students with similar classes in the future, with potentially four or five scheduled calls for next year, Stanczak said.

“The community isn’t just our neighborhood,” Stanczak said. “It’s the whole world.”

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