Dana Abizaid
Spring 2015
Published in UMASS Amherst Magazine.

THOREAU WROTE, “The universe is wider than our views of it.” The lessons I learned in Amherst helped me realize the truth in this. These were human lessons that transcended culture and boundaries and were the product of the spirit of tolerance and perspective I gained from a diverse student body and faculty. In particular, I clearly remember my first history course, African American Slavery, freshman year with Professor William Strickland. Professor Strickland opened to me a history that was either hidden by or unknown to my high school teachers. His course inspired me to study other important people, stories, and parts of the world that are too often neglected.

While working with a host of unique characters in Kazakhstan, Russia, China, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkey over the past 16 years, I have built on what I learned in Professor Strickland’s course about respecting others’ views, keeping an open mind, and understanding that western solutions are not infallible. Although my work has focused on education, media, and democracy development, it is the personal relationships forged with people from varying religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds that I value most.

My first significant international experience was as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Kazakhstan from 1998 to 2000. When I came to Amherst in 1991 Kazakhstan was still part of the Soviet Union and I imagine few faculty or students could have pointed out the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic on a map. Nevertheless, less than a decade later I had finished a two-year tour of service in a southern Kazakhstan village, learned Russian, and married a Kazakh woman. To learn more about the former Soviet world, I applied for a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship in 2002. I was selected and sent to Moscow State University for one academic year where I taught US history and studied Russian.

My first lecture as a history instructor in Moscow was a defining moment in tolerance and perspective. I thought my opening remarks were rational, clear, and devoid of hubris. Choosing what I believed were well-established facts, I set out to state humbly in one sentence the objective for our course.

“In this concise history of the United States we will explore the historical events behind America’s rise as the most militarily and economically powerful nation in the world.”

A hand immediately went up. I asked the young man to state his name and make his comment. His name was Victor and he said I had made a mistake. The United States was not the most militarily powerful nation in the world.

“Which nation is?” I asked.

“Russia.”

A silence fell over the hall as I took a deep breath before responding. I told Victor and the students that difference of opinion, dissent, and the exchange of ideas were vital parts of historical study and that our class would be a forum for such expression. Nonetheless, I had blundered and knew it. Although embarrassed and frustrated by my mistake, I remembered an important lesson I had learned from my peers at UMass: people are proud of their nation, culture, language, and traditions and not everybody is open to what many perceive as the westernization of the world.

I carried this lesson with me to Chinese Agricultural University, up into the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan as a National Security Education Program Fellow, and into the Kazakh and Kyrgyz steppe as regional program officer for Internews Network. I recall it often at the Istanbul International Community School where I currently teach history. Our school’s International Baccalaureate mission statement embodies many of the same values I first encountered at UMass, encouraging “students across the world to become active, compassionate, and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.”

This vital and recurring lesson has inspired me to learn Russian, Kazakh, Uzbek, and now Turkish. A Chinese proverb says, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

With a little tolerance and some perspective it is not difficult to speak to people’s hearts.