Sep 072011
Authors: Lydia Jorden

When most of us turn on the news and hear about multiple suicide bombers in Iraq, we pass it off as a slow news day. When I hear this, I am terrified for the lives of 25 of Iraq’s brightest, most intelligent scholars, but more importantly — my friends.

This past summer I had the privilege to work beside 25 Iraqi students as they participated in the Iraqi Young Leadership Exchange Program. This program guided the students to receive certification acknowledging efforts done to expand their knowledge of leadership in environmental sustainability through service learning.

I lived in Newsom Hall with the students for the entire month they were in Colorado. Most of our days were spent going on field trips that molded the students into becoming environmentally aware leaders, yet many of them were already making changes in Iraq.

Being a mentor in this program allowed me to gain an insight into how people in Iraq live their lives, without the opinions of ignorant individuals pushing their assumptions on me. The students taught me so much about Iraq and accepted me and my co-workers immediately, despite some of our silly questions.

These students were particularly open-minded. They came into the program accepting others regardless of where they lived or their religion. This was a surprise for me because the Iraqis came from diverse and often conflicting areas such as Kurdistan, Baghdad, Basrah or Babylon. My ignorant American stereotypes took over when I assumed there would be any kind of animosity.

I was fortunate enough to learn something new every day, but some of the most important lessons my Iraqi friends taught me surfaced while working for Habitat for Humanity and white water rafting.

Building a house in 90-degree weather from about 8 a.m.- 4 p.m. was not on their list of things to do in America, especially since many of them voiced that they have never physically worked that hard before.

My job consisted of making sure the students didn’t saw off their fingers, along with hours of manual labor. For many, especially the women, using a power saw was a foreign idea and the men had to learn to sit back and let the women do “a man’s job.”

One particular student, Hatm, uniquely impressed me with his leadership skills as he took the time to teach the women in our group to use a power saw. They were clearly struggling (as was I), and in Iraq, teaching a woman how to do something so labor intensive is not an activity a man would generally support. After witnessing this, I could not stop smiling.

Once observing Hatm’s actions, I realized that the better we get at an activity, the harder it is to remember what it was like to just learn it. It is important to step back and realize that as experts at a certain trade, we need to recall that we were not always experts and we need to help our peers.

Helping our peers proved to be an important lesson when we began our journey at Rocky Mountain Adventure. Geared with our life jackets and helmets, we hopped on the bus and headed up the Poudre Canyon for a day of white water rafting.

Once arriving at our destination, I watched as our group of students exchanged looks of excitement and fear. Numerous students could not swim, and the idea of paddling through rapids was a completely new experience.

Everyone coped well until the second part of our day. Two of our female students toppled over the raft and felt the cold and pull of the river dragged them under. Our guides were quick to rescue the laughing and excited students.

It’s not easy to immerse yourself in a culture with new experiences approaching at every angle.

Going rafting down a river is not for the weak. The fact that these students would participate in such an activity when most could not swim says something about their character.

My friends and I are now separated by 6,992 miles. Will I ever have the chance to see these people who completely changed, enriched and transformed my life in the course of one month? Only if they are able to come back to the United States, because Iraq doesn’t issue travelers visas and unless I find a way there by boat, I am out of luck.

I have a new outlook on people living in Iraq. These 25 leaders deserve tremendous applause for the experiences they have been though. These students came here to learn about the United States, but ended up teaching me more than I could have ever imagined about Iraq, true friendship and myself.

Lydia Jorden is a junior business major. Her column appears Thursdays in the Collegian. She can be reached at

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