Faces behind the flag: Algeria

Meriem Mechehoud brings scholarship, engagement to BGSU cultural exchange

Meriem-Mechehoud

By Bonnie Blankinship

“I need to do something I’m passionate about. Passion is something I can’t compromise on,” said Meriem Mechehoud. Mechehoud’s passion for cultural exchange was what drew her to Bowling Green from Algeria, first to enroll in BGSU’s American culture studies graduate program through the Fulbright Program and now to a second degree in the Master of Arts in Cross-Cultural and International Education (MACIE) program.

Along with her passion, Mechechoud brings a vibrant intellectual curiosity about how people in the Middle East and the United States. are affected by national and world events and by the political climate, and whether participation in cultural exchange programs is effective in changing attitudes. Having lived through the Arab Spring and witnessed great changes throughout North Africa, she also wants to know how people’s perceptions have changed as a result and whether they have become more politically active.

Equally critical to her is helping defuse the Islamophobia she has witnessed in the U.S. through outreach and dialogue. She has observed that people in both the Middle East and America do not have a realistic view of one another’s cultures and ways of life.

“There is a lot of cultural miscommunication between the two,” she said. Determined to reduce the many misperceptions, she is active on the Bowling Green State University campus in a variety of ways to introduce the two cultures and show that, in fundamental ways, people’s lives are much the same. Even as an undergraduate in Algeria, she started a culture club where students could learn about other places.

Mechehoud has chosen to wear the hijab, which draws some attention and marks her out as a Muslim. She admits to being a bit impatient with Westerners’ focus on that particular item of clothing and their assumption that she is somehow forced to wear it, and is eager “to move beyond it. Don’t prescribe for others. The scarf should not be an issue to getting to know me,” she said. “I’m trying to tell people that Muslim women have a lot of issues we are fighting for that are not that different from those in the West. I tell women here and in my country that if you want to stand together, we can be stronger.”

Nevertheless, recognizing the importance of outreach, she recently participated as a panelist in “Women of Islam: The Politics of the Hijab” in honor of World Hijab Day, with several other students and English faculty member Dr. Khani Begum who is one of her mentors and oversaw Mechehoud’s thesis.

“From a fairly young age she has been committed not just to learning but also to reaching out to teach Americans about Middle Eastern culture,” Begum said. “I haven’t come across many other students with such a serious concern for people and strong desire to build bridges between cultures. She is very mature and has a strong sense of herself.”

Mechechoud said even though she originally knew nothing about Bowling Green, she was drawn to the American culture studies graduate program in part because of students’ ability to follow their particular interests. While in ACS, she took two MACIE classes and found that the program also perfectly fit her scholarly and personal goals and made her want to be a part of that community. No sooner had she graduated with her ACS master’s in December than she began the effort to get back to BGSU as a MACIE student.

“Dr. (Andrew) Schocket (ACS director) and (MACIE director) Dr. (Christopher) Frey and Dr. Begum have been so inspirational,” she said. She also loved serving as a graduate assistant to Dr. Margaret Booth, now interim dean of the Graduate College, on a longitudinal study of students in Fremont, Ohio, schools.

“There’s such a supportive environment here and a welcoming attitude,” Mechehoud said. “At BGSU they gave me a second home, a second family. When there’s something worrisome in the news, my professors check in on me, and my friends and colleagues are texting me and calling to ask do I need a ride or anything.”

Both in class and outside of it, Mechehoud is a thoughtful and energetic contributor to dialogue on cultural exchange. She brings a unique perspective to the conversation, being in the unusual position of having participated in a U.S.-Algerian cultural exchange program at a young age and then looking at it as a graduate student researcher. She was part of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) conducted by the U.S. State Department, and chose to analyze the experience for her master’s thesis in American culture studies.

In 2007, she visited Georgetown University for the MEPI program in Leadership, Civic Activism and Citizenship. For her master’s thesis she examined how such programs shape mutual understanding between the U.S. and the countries of the Middle East North African (MENA) region and analyzed the impact of leadership styles, conflict resolution and group dynamics, political and social change initiatives, and the role of civil society in democratic processes in the MENA region. She surveyed participants from Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria and found that the programs did tend to increase their political and civic engagement.

“Meriem has both personal and analytic experience with the two and sees things within a broader frame, a bigger picture,” said Frey. “She has been interested in the two-way street: how America is perceived in the Middle East and how the Middle East is perceived here. Her experience with MEPI has given her a well-rounded approach to looking at those ‘soft power’ initiatives.

“We feel really fortunate to have her in our program. She’s a very valuable and respected participant in this moment of change. Her interests in North Africa and democratization efforts in the Middle East fit well with our program and she is dedicated to cross-cultural efforts, not just in the schools, and in bridging cultural divides.”

In Begum’s Deconstructing Islamophobia class, Mechechoud’s perspective promoted higher level discussions, Begum said. She participates in campus conferences and service-learning activities and is a member of the Muslim Women’s Association and the Graduate Women’s Caucus. She also gives talks in American culture studies undergraduate classes and gave two presentations during International Education Week last fall related to the Not In Our Town initiative and Deconstructing Islamophobia, including one on Muslim identity and another on paralleling religions.

“I wanted to show a positive side and answer people’s questions about Muslim society,” she said, noting this was especially important coming right after the national elections.

In addition to her other activities, “I also have a personal project that I’ve wanted to do even before I came to the United States in 2014: to connect students here at the University with students in my hometown or my university by Skype. I want them to be able to learn about our ways of life, our education, so they can see a day in the life of one another. I know that students do not know a lot about each other and there are things I want both sides to know. We’re not very different. What you see on the news is not the average life of people in the Middle East. For example, I come from a seaside town. I can take the bus to school, we can go to the beach, our mothers shop and cook, we go to work.”

As for Algerian students, she said, their conception of student life here isn’t accurate. “Student life here is not as easy as they think. Most students here study and also work to help support their education. They’re in campus activities and they do service projects.”

Mechehoud is working with Dr. Beatrice Guenther, German, Russian and East Asian languages, to set up a time to talk in one of Guenther’s International Studies classes. “It’s my dream,” Mechehoud said, and she is working hard to get it off the ground this year before she completes her degree program.

“She’s a strong woman for her age and is willing to make personal sacrifice,” Begum said. “I see her in a political career somewhere down the line, as a cultural information officer or ambassador. She’ll do good in the world.”