Arthur spoke with Dalal Al-Waheidi, one of Canada’s 100 most influential women, the Executive Director of Global We Day at Free The Children, a Trent and United World College alumnus, and this year’s Jack Matthews Fellow.
How was your time at a United World College significant to your experience and why are United World Colleges important?
I was really fortunate to study in United World College in Norway from 96 to 98. The whole idea behind the United World Colleges is to promote international understanding and start training people to become global citizens. I think that it is important to start talking about global citizenship, international understanding, and embracing other cultures as early as possible.
It would be my dream to have UWC values in primary school and middle schools. There is a need, especially in the world in which we are living right now, when you look at the level of misunderstanding and conflict that is happening now; if you look at the root causes of this, one of these is the lack of understanding that people are different and its okay to be different. We should be embracing differences rather than just focusing on the differences and wanting to be similar to one another.
I think that the values of UWC, of promoting these two things [global citizenship and international understanding], and also of valuing your own unique individuality and recognizing that your own unique individuality can contribute to a greater good really impacted my path. Definitely UWC has opened a lot of doors for me, especially in terms of coming to Trent University. One of the reasons I came to Trent University is because I got the full scholarship that is specifically for UWC graduates and I am so fortunate to have been able to get this scholarship. It opened the doors for my education. It also opened the door for me to be able to work with other people from other cultures and different opinions.
What kind of lessons did you learn from your time at Trent University and how have they impacted your life and work after graduation?
This University really taught us how to be critical thinkers. That is something that I definitely apply to both my personal life and my professional life. I was an international student, but I also did my degree in international development and political science, so we had international students in the classroom and Canadian students in the classroom.
Both of us would be talking about issues that affected Canada and that affected the world, so it was really interesting to see the perspective of Canadian students and of students that were from these countries that have experienced some of these things. Having these debates and conversations, being critical about it and applying the same notion that we can be different and that is okay, we can agree to disagree, but at the end of the day we are committed as global citizens is important.
My experience at Trent and being involved in different groups and clubs with different mission statements helped me learn to work with different people. In my line of work I work with people from different industries, backgrounds, from different educational systems.
I bring what I learned in Trent in Ecuador from a development perspective into my work, but also what I learned with these clubs: how do you deal with different stakeholders, how do you bring people together to achieve a goal?
In every single club that I participated in we always had debates on how we do things, you know from Cultural Outreach, to TMSA, to the Women Centre. I think it is all about embracing unique talent, unique voices, but at the same time feeling that you are part of a collective where your voice matters.
As a woman of colour, what challenges have you faced through your journey and how have you overcome these?
I think in Trent in 1998, the number of international students was not as large as it is now, so I am really excited to see how the percentage of international students has increased because I fundamentally believe that international students are such an important value to the university and to the programs. It is not just a PR thing. We contribute to the discussions, we contribute to the mission statement of the university. It is about creating global perspectives and having experiential learning. We need to have international students and internationalization programs.
That was a challenge in the beginning because there were not a lot of Arab women at the time when I was in university. There were few of us, I am an Arab women and a Muslim and a Palestinian. I felt at times that there was a lack of understanding, in the Peterborough community at times, and within the Trent Community beyond international students and beyond international development and other courses where people might not understand your background and attach a stigma to you because of who you are.
I was also at Trent when 9/11 happened. So we really experienced some backlash, not as much in Trent but in the community, but we also found some very welcoming homes. That was a challenge; feeling that you need to defend yourself all the time, defend your people. So I am a Muslim, but I am empowered, I am Palestinian, but I do not hate Jews. I had to say these things at times. That was a challenge, but as years went by and the TIP expanded, that helped.
Generally, women from minority groups are hard on themselves. We have this feeling that we are not good enough, or not worth these opportunities, and we hesitate to apply to jobs. I overcame that by the sense of empowerment that I received here at Trent University. You always question ‘am I good enough? Am I getting this because I am a woman of colour or because of my skillset?’ So I reached a point in my life where I decided to stop asking myself this question. I am getting it because I am a woman that is capable, not because I am a woman of colour.
What advice can you give to Trent University students who want to make a change in the world?
Continue to raise awareness on issues that you think are important. One of the things that I noticed on this visit is that there is more diversity in the Peterborough community, but I think there needs to be even more diversity. So raising awareness about this issue, especially now that we are welcoming so many refugees from other countries, volunteer to make their lives easier.
I think that as a Trent University student, volunteering in the local community is key because you live in this community; you owe this community something back. Really take on a cause that you are passionate about and do something about it, really be the critical student that Trent encourages you to be.
Another key thing is the purchases that you make and where you buy things. Be a consumer with a perspective. Make the right choices that speak to you and what you are passionate about because we do have a purchasing power as a consumer, and we can make a dent. Look at where things are being made and how people are being treated, and how we can support local cooperatives.
After you graduate, there are a couple of ways you can continue. Very similarly, your volunteer experiences should not stop just because you are now in the workforce in a 9-to-5 job. Continue to create these opportunities for yourself. I believe that you can make a difference whether you are working in a foundation, a corporation, or in an NGO. It is a matter of how you bring in the values that you learned [at] Trent into your work.
I am always surprised to see how so many people who are so passionate and active in Trent University enter the workforce and it becomes a chapter that they close. I wish that was not the case and they continued to be active in their community.
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