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Exeter Summer students learning to build bridges

Susan MacDougall '03 returns to campus this summer with a new curriculum designed to help students communicate in context and across cultures.

Melanie Nelson
August 4, 2017
Susan laughing inside the Academy Building.

Susan MacDougall ’03, who developed an Exeter Summer class called Bridging Cultures, will return to England this fall to teach at Oxford and write a book based on her dissertation. 

Susan MacDougall ’03 is thoughtfully sipping her drink at an Exeter café on a hot summer morning. Her youthful appearance — she might easily be mistaken for a current student — belies a decade’s worth of travel to, and study in, some of the most politically precarious nations of the Middle East, among them Jordan, Syria and Yemen.

MacDougall has returned to campus this summer to help formalize cross-cultural communications and interactions among Exeter Summer students. In collaboration with Director of Exeter Summer Elena Gosalvez-Blanco, she has developed a course, Bridging Cultures, as well as a club, Global Perspectives, each open to all 2017 ACCESS EXETER and UPPER SCHOOL students.  

While the club, which meets once each week, offers a casual setting for the exploration of cultural identity, the class, explains MacDougall, provides a chance to impart a framework and skills for “operating in dynamic environments” like those in which many Exeter Summer students are eventually likely to study, work and reside.

“I focus on things that are culturally durable, like listening, empathy, patience and checking assumptions,” she says. “I also help them to understand that they will make missteps, and what to do if that happens. For example, if they offend someone, how to apologize, learn from it and move forward.”

The collaboration originated in a conversation MacDougall had with PEA English Instructor Becky Moore. “Becky remains a really good friend of mine as well as a feminist role model,” she says. “She suggested I approach Elena about opportunities to get involved  based on my background and research interests, especially given that more than 50 countries are represented [at Exeter Summer].”

“I focus on things that are culturally durable, like listening, empathy, patience and checking assumptions. I also help them to understand that they will make missteps, and what to do if that happens."

As a child, MacDougall was encouraged by her parents to be open to new cultures and experiences; she had her first cross-cultural exchange on a service trip to a banana farm in Tortola in middle school. Her world view was further broadened at Exeter, through her studies and exposure to peers from around the globe, and thanks to volunteer work with the Breakthrough Collaborative, a national college-preparatory enrichment program for underserved middle and high school students.

By the time she entered Northwestern in the fall of 2003, MacDougall was more eager than ever to expand her cultural studies, declaring a major in social policy with a minor in Arabic, studying abroad in Jordan, and, under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State, spending the summer after her junior year as a Critical Language Scholar in Yemen.

After Northwestern, MacDougall pursued a master’s in Near Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona, where she unearthed her passion for anthropology. “I took a course called ‘Anthropology of War and Militarization,’ she recalls, “[and learned] how effective anthropology can be for thinking about power and who holds it.”

That perspective, mind-shifting for MacDougall, would come in handy in the years that followed — first in 2011, when she travelled to Jordan as a Fulbright Scholar to study Iraqi refugee women and divorcées, and two years later, when, as an Oxford doctoral student, she returned to study the everyday social lives of working-class Jordanian women.

Coming back to Exeter as an adult, MacDougall says, is “a really cool thing. I appreciated my time at Exeter when I was a student, but with the typical tunnel vision of a teenager. After I left and experienced other institutions, it became clear just how generous Exeter instructors are with their time, and how seriously they take their students. I’ve never had that dynamic at another school, and I am eager to try to replicate it with my Exeter Summer students. Ultimately, I want them to know that while we are all individuals, we are also all living in context, as part of larger ecosystems.”

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