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 Amani Elshimi is the Director of Community Based Learning at the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo. The Gerhart Center is the secretariat of the newly-established Ma’an Arab University Alliance for Civic Engagement.

On June 23-26, 2009, the Ma’an Alliance is sponsoring "Expanding Civic Engagement in Arab Universities: A Peer Learning Workshop for Faculty," hosted by the American University of Beirut. Amani Elshimi will be a co-facilitator for the event. We spoke with her recently about the background and goals of the Workshop, the future of civic engagement in Arab higher education, and the role of the Ma’an Alliance.


TN: Could you provide some background on the "Peer Learning Workshop for Faculty"? What prompted the Ma’an Alliance to offer it, and why did you choose to focus on faculty rather than students or administration?

The Ma’an Institute on Civic Engagement is an opportunity for universities in the Middle East region to share perspectives on Arab civic involvement and to outline an agenda for higher education campuses.  The institute is a follow-up on the ‘Civic Engagement in Arab Universities’ conference held last October, and will be held at the American University of Beirut, in June. The institute facilitators are faculty at the American University of Beirut, the American University in Cairo, and Portland State University.  

There is high emphasis on faculty because it is the faculty members that drive the institutional curriculum.  It is important to help faculty adopt and feel comfortable managing a class that engages meaningfully in community-based learning. Active teaching methodologies generally require time and commitment that only faculty who are truly passionate and confident about their work are able to offer. The Ma’an institute hopes to create the space for such faculty to share perspectives, develop and negotiate their conceptual understanding of learning and civic outcomes, and refine their skills and competencies in the area of engaging pedagogies.  

The attendees also include administrators, staff, as well as community partners.  In one session, students are invited to reflect on their community experiences and to discuss with the participants ways in which campus-community relations can be heightened. The audience diversity will help re-construct a holistic picture of Arab university approaches to connecting education to community knowledge in reciprocal ways.  

TN: What are the main goals of the Peer Learning Workshop?

The institute has specific objectives, which aim to

  • Create a forum for the exchange of ideas, with the purpose of identifying common language, evaluating learning experiences, and drawing out the lessons learned
  • Facilitate practical trainings and community visits covering a variety of topics related to civic engagement
  • Strengthen the Ma’an Arab University Alliance

TN: For those who are unable to attend the workshop, will they have access to any documents after the workshop?

A resource kit is being developed and will be made available to Ma’an member institutions, upon request.  

TN: What advice would you give to faculty in the region who are unable to attend this workshop, but who are interested in launching or strengthening civic engagement programs on their campus?

The Ma’an Alliance will continue to hold annual institutes on various campuses.  We hope also to develop the website in ways that allow for interaction and sharing of resources. This is currently an on-going project. The Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement also offers fee-based consultation services, tailored to individual institution needs, philosophy and potential.   

TN: Does the Ma’an Alliance hope to hold similar events in the future, perhaps for other constituencies such as students?

Yes, we hope to make the professional development Institute an annual event that takes place on different Arab campuses. There will also be opportunities for institutional partners to host international conferences which will be advertised to the Ma’an Alliance.

Also, on an annual basis, the American University in Cairo organizes a conference for Excellence in Undergraduate Research, Entrepreneurship and Creative Achievement (EURECA). As of next year, the conference will include a Forum for Civic Engagement – an opportunity for students to share, evaluate and propose developments for their various curricular and co-curricular civic engagement experiences.

TN: What do you see as the greatest challenge to strengthening higher education civic engagement in the Arab world? Why do you think interest in higher education civic engagement has been growing in the region in the last few years?

The greatest challenge, both in the Arab region and otherwise, is, I believe, the absence of infra-structure for university-based civic engagement. While the culture of ‘giving’ is tangible, the tradition of integrating higher education with community agendas, on a reciprocal, participatory basis, has been largely confined to the applied and social sciences. Creating a discipline-wide culture and strategy for connecting the curriculum with community will require skill, patience and continuous knowledge-sharing.

There clearly is an interest in re-visiting higher education approaches and forwarding student civic outcomes because the students themselves are searching for ways to root themselves in community. Young people in the Arab world want to take an active role in addressing social and community issues, help build neighborhoods, develop their own interpersonal and leadership skills, and connect to each other as they do so. Engagement fosters a sense of purpose and shapes identity. As institutions evaluate their programs and assess their outcomes, they may re-define their goals to both cater to student needs and position the learning they offer within an authentic, local context.   

TN: Where do you see civic engagement in Arab higher education going in the next five years? What role do you see for the Ma’an Arab University Alliance for Civic Engagement in advancing civic engagement?

The Ma’an University Alliance is only a catalyst for capturing and driving forward the dialogue on civic engagement, civic skills, and community-campus relations. It has not created the dialogue. The urge and interest have always been there, with universities in the region engaging community in diverse ways. The Ma’an Alliance will unify the language and glean and share the lessons learned. It will use the knowledge and experience of the member institutions to create a home-grown philosophy and resources for the region. Civic engagement on Arab Higher Education campuses is growing fast. The Ma’an Alliance hopes to play a role in nurturing that growth, so that curricular changes and instructional strategies develop in mature, informed and discerning ways.


Read more about Amani Elshimi’s background on her Civic Engagement Expert profile here>>

To learn more about "Expanding Civic Engagement in Arab Universities: A Peer Learning Workshop for Faculty," visit the Ma’an Alliance’s website>>