In April, 10 central Vermont high school students traveled to Amman, Jordan, where they lived with host families for three weeks as part of local group Project Harmony's first Middle East exchange.
Then last month, 11 Jordanian counterparts arrived in Vermont.
And today, on the Fourth of July, the visitors shared a quintessentially American experience with their local hosts: They attended Warren's Independence Day parade.
Project Harmony, a Waitsfield cross-cultural exchange program, was founded in 1985 to promote understanding between people of the United States and the Soviet Union.
The exchange with Jordan is organized around media literacy. The participants learned media production skills while examining the role the media play in shaping how people see each other.
Last week, five of the 21 students – three Americans and two Jordanians – took a break from finishing digital stories on cultural stereotypes, racism, women's rights and poverty to reflect on what they had learned about each other.
Mira Yaseen, a 16-year-old Jordanian with curly brown hair escaping from her ponytail, had no culture shock when she arrived in Vermont. "We're very exposed to American culture in Jordan," she said. "We know how they live, what they do. We watch American movies all the time." She imagined Americans as "friendly and down-to-earth."
Catherine Moore, whose family Mira was staying with, said that the Americans experienced culture shock in Amman, but it was not so much from the difference in cultures as from the change of going from a rural area to a city. She observed that Mira commented more on the dirt roads and the green of the Vermont countryside than the food or the way her family lives.
Ihab Hussein, tall and quiet, disputed the American friends' view of their home state.
"When Vermonters came to join us, they told us Vermont is really boring, but there's a lot of stuff you can do here. Yesterday and the day before, we went swimming in the rain, and it was really good. Maybe because we live in a city, we don't do all this stuff, so it's new," he said.
Moore said a lot of people had expressed concern about their going to Jordan, "which is in the middle of the Middle East – it's sandwiched between Israel and Palestine on one side and Iraq on the other, and a lot of people associate that part of the world with terrorism.
But we had to learn to separate terrorism from the Jordanian people and the people of the Middle East. It's such a minority compared to most of the Arabs in the world."
Moore, who plans to major in journalism at Boston University, added that she was just as scared when she went to Panama. "The unknown is scary," she declared.
Yaseen said that if there was one thing Americans should work on, it was learning more about the Middle East. "They should be more politically aware, because they know nothing. That's the thing that struck me the most," she said.
Uli Botzojorns, a 16-year-old from Bolton, observed that Jordanian students were politically aware, but that they distinguish between the American people and their government.
"The culture has nothing to do with the politics," Yaseen interjected.
Botzojorns agreed that "overall our culture is pretty lax about being politically minded. A lot of people don't have the time or don't want to become involved in politics, when it's actually one of the great things about America. But they don't take advantage of that," she said.
The students were rushing to finish digital stories that they will present July 7 from 3:30 to 5 p.m. at the Waitsfield Elementary School.
"Although we are getting all this media training and producing these movies, a major part of the exchange is the intercultural and interrelational exchange, where we're learning about these other people in order to understand their politics and their culture," Botzojorns noted. "I think the interest in people goes along with the interest in politics. They go hand in hand."
Several of the Americans expressed frustration or dismay at the difficulty in trying to communicate their experience of Jordan when they returned home.
"When we got back, people would ask, 'Oh, how was Jordan?' and they expect a one-word answer. Unless you have some really funny or strange stories to tell them just in passing, that's really all you can convey," Graham Carney declared.
After spending three days intensely focused on editing and finishing our digital stories - VIEW THEM HERE! - we traveled three hours south to the University of Massachusetts yesterday afternoon to the Media Giraffe Conference...
Sat in on our first journalism round table last night - and met the Deanness of the White House Press Corps - HELEN THOMAS!
View photos here.
Today, we are off to Northampton to visit the Media Education Foundation, screen a new film called "Reel Bad Arabs," about Hollywood's stereotyping of Arab peoples over the years, and touring Deerfield Academy, high school home of Jordan's King Abdullah.