When then-high school student Nina Foushee traveled to Alexandria, Egypt in summer 2010 for a language exchange, she harbored many of the same misconceptions about the Arab world as her fellow Americans, she said.
Six weeks later, the stereotypes about religious extremism, oppressed women and dangerous streets had been largely wiped away.
“I felt incredibly safe and welcomed my entire time in Egypt,” said Foushee, now an 18-year-old freshman at Stanford University.
Foushee was one of two speakers featured Thursday as La Cañada High School celebrated its second annual Diversity Week, designed to ignite a conversation among the student body among the importance of embracing peoples’ difference.
Parent volunteer and Diversity Week chair Makiko Nakasone said that she launched the program last year in order to complement the multi-cultural week celebrations already in place La Cañada Unified’s elementary and middle schools.
“I proposed to change the name to Diversity Week because I thought it is important to include not only students with difficult cultural backgrounds, but also students who are simply different because of their physical challenges or learning styles,” Nakasone said.
Activities have included a speech contest and a “diversity mountain,” an installation at the center of campus where students were asked to write comments or reflections on diversity and then affix them to the “mountain.”
Foushee told students that during her travels, she was impressed to meet Egyptian women interested in a broad range of pursuits. Her host mother worked in a bank, and one of her host sisters was preparing to enter college, while another stayed at home, Foushee said.
“I could see that within my [host] family there were a lot of different paths that were being taken,” Foushee said. “And while I was in Egypt I met female engineers, I met female doctors, college students, scientists — everything that we see here.”
Fellow speaker Jeff Hammoudeh, a pediatric oral surgeon at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, said that he endured plenty of teasing from classmates after immigrating from the Palestinian West Bank to the United States at the age of 10.
But in most ways, his is the typical American family. He himself went to college on a football scholarship before applying to medical school, he said.
Hammoudeh warned students to consume media coverage of Arabs and Muslims with a critical mind.
“Fanaticism can exist not only in Islam, but also in Christianity,” Hammoudeh said. “The negative connotations that we get from the media really get ingrained in your head. You need to understand that there is always a spin on something.”
And there is no substitution for learning about other cultures first hand, he added.
“Travel the world, meet people,” Hammoudeh said. “That is what breaks down barriers.”