The article below by Kathryn Jewett Hogenson has been added to the special collection, “The Mystery of God,” a selection of pieces brought together to honor the Centenary of the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the eldest son of Bahá’u’lláh, the Prophet-Founder of the Baha’i Faith. You can also visit the Library to see the entire selection of essays and articles on the website. The Library is periodically augmented with pieces from the printed volumes, published from 1926 to 2006.
In the late summer of 1911 in the United States, Albert Smiley found a letter sent from Egypt among the items in his mail. Dated August 9, it was from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, head of a religion which Smiley had only briefly encountered the year before.1 The letter addressed Smiley as the founder and host of the Lake Mohonk Conferences on International Arbitration and praised those gatherings and their goal of establishing arbitration as the means to settle disputes between nations. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stated emphatically, “What cause is greater than this!” Explaining how His Father, Bahá’u’lláh, had advocated the unity of the nations and religions, He asserted that the basis of this unity was the oneness of humanity.2 To ensure that His message to the sponsors was received and considered, a second letter was sent on August 22 to the Conference secretary, Mr. C. C. Philips. It began, “The Conference on International Arbitration and Peace is the greatest results [sic] of this great age.”3 In response, the organizers invited ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to take part in the 1912 Conference and to address one of its sessions.4
SYDNEY — Farmers as well as agricultural scientists and policy makers from Australia, Africa and North America have joined the global outcry at the unjust confiscation of lands belonging to Bahá’í farmers in Iran, as the Iranian authorities face mounting criticism over the widespread and systematic persecution of the country’s Bahá’ís.
In an open letter to Iran’s Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi and acting Minister of Agriculture Abbas Keshavarz, figures in the field of agriculture from several countries across the world—including Canada, Ethiopia, Mali, and the United States—say they are speaking out because they “are concerned about the plight of smallholder farmers throughout the world who often face injustice from arbitrary authority.
“These recent land seizures take place within the context of escalating raids on Bahá’í owned homes and businesses in Iran,” they say, expressing their alarm at the latest stage in the ongoing persecution of the Bahá’ís of Ivel who have been displaced and economically impoverished by Iranian authorities solely because of their religious beliefs.
The open letter states: “We understand that Bahá’í families have farmed land in Ivel for over 150 years and that these families have been constructive members of the local community, by, for instance, starting a school for children of all faiths and by carrying out measures to improve the hygiene and health of all community members.
“Despite their contributions to the community,” the letter continues, “they have faced a series of persecutions throughout the years, characterized by mass expulsion and displacement, and the demolition, bulldozing and confiscation of their homes.”
The signatories call on Chief Justice Raisi and Minister of Agriculture Keshavarz to end the persecution of Bahá’ís, saying, “We write as fellow agriculturists to bring attention to this instance of persecution and urge the Iranian authorities to overturn their decision with regard to the farmers of Ivel.”https://www.youtube.com/embed/QzR1tCXgtqo?controls=0A moving video message released on behalf of members of Australia’s farming community draws attention to the plight of Bahá’í families in the Iranian village of Ivel. Claire Booth, a farmer from New South Wales, speaks in the video.
Meanwhile in Australia, a moving video message released on behalf of members of the country’s farming community draws attention to the plight of Bahá’í families in the Iranian village of Ivel.
“Farming is a difficult job at the best of times,” says Claire Booth, a farmer from New South Wales, in the video message. “It’s not made any easier by the frequency of floods, droughts, fires, climate change, and most recently, the impacts of the pandemic.”
The video message describes the role of a supportive government in assisting its farming communities, drawing a sharp contrast with Iran’s harsh treatment of the country’s “peaceful Bahá’í community.”
“We stand in solidarity with our farming brothers and sisters in this country,” the farmers say, “and call on the Iranian government and judiciary to return the land and properties to their rightful owners—Bahá’í farmers in Ivel.”
HARGAWAN, India — Ground was broken this week for the first local Bahá’í House of Worship in India—an edifice from which will emanate the spirit of worship and service that has been fostered over decades in the local area, known as Bihar Sharif. The groundbreaking ceremony marked the start of the construction of this edifice, which is among the seven Bahá’í temples announced in 2012.
The ceremony brought together local dignitaries, representatives of the Bahá’í community, and residents of the area. The occasion began with prayers and deep prajwalan—the Indian custom of lighting a lamp to signify the attainment of knowledge, purity, and connection with the divine. Children and youth played a special role in the program, contributing to the devotional atmosphere through songs and musical drama.
In his comments at the ceremony, Amod Kumar, the head of the Panchayat (a local civic body) of Hargawan, Bihar Sharif, spoke about his hopes for the temple. “Today our society is divided by caste, religion, and generation. The Bahá’í teachings have contributed to unifying people here, especially children and young people participating in the Bahá’í community’s moral education programs. Now this area has received the House of Worship as a divine gift, and it is hoped that the community here will benefit from this gift and continue to achieve progress and prosperity.”
Naznene Rowhani, Secretary of the Bahá’í National Spiritual Assembly of India said, “Unity and harmony in our diverse society has been expressed through India’s proud Vedic tradition of vasudhaiva kutumbakam—the world is one family. … [The temple] will be a shining symbol of vasudhaiva kutumbakam in action—where everybody, regardless of community, caste, color, or creed will be welcome to commune with their Creator. This tradition is affirmed and manifested in Bahá’u’lláh’s words ‘Regard ye not one other as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree and the leaves of one branch. So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth.’”
The groundbreaking ceremony culminated with the placing of soil collected from villages across the state of Bihar at the temple site. This gesture was evocative of the connection between the thousands of residents of these villages and the House of Worship.
“When hundreds of people—young and old, women and men, farmers, laborers, students, doctors, businessmen—eventually gather together daily in the House of Worship and turn to the Almighty, this will further strengthen the bonds of unity that have formed in this community,” said Rahul Kumar, a member of the Continental Board of Counsellors in Asia.
In her remarks at the ceremony, Ms. Rowhani explained how the Temple will belong to all people of Bihar Sharif. “It is the fervent hope of the Bahá’í community of India that this beautiful edifice will be a place where humanity will enter and find harmony, peace, and spirituality.”
The groundbreaking comes after the unveiling of the design for the House of Worship, which took place last April.
BIC GENEVA — Leading Muslims, government officials, and parliamentarians around the world have joined a growing outcry at the unjust confiscation of properties owned by Bahá’ís in the Iranian farming village of Ivel. The ruling to allow Iranian authorities to confiscate the properties, clearly motivated by religious prejudice, was recently upheld in an appeals court and has left dozens of families internally displaced and economically impoverished.
The American Islamic Congress, the Canadian Council of Imams, Chair of the Virtues Ethics Foundation and one of the leading Islamic scholars in the United Kingdom Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, the All India Tanzeem Falahul Muslemin, and the All India Saifi Association have all issued statements in support of the Bahá’ís in Ivel, expressing grave concern about the confiscation of the properties.
“We are calling for the Higher court in Mazandaran and all responsible personnel to take action and to help the Baha’i community in Ivel get back their properties,” reads the statement from the American Islamic Congress. Echoing these sentiments, the Canadian Council of Imams writes, “We are deeply concerned by the ruling issued by an Iranian Court to confiscate the properties of 27 Bahá’ís in the farming village of Ivel.”
Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra from the United Kingdom called on Iran’s Chief Justice, Ebrahim Raisi, “to address this injustice,” adding that “Islam does not permit a government to confiscate land from citizens just because they follow a different religion.”
Diane Ala’i, Representative of the Bahá’í International Community (BIC) to the United Nations in Geneva, says, “The sight of Muslim leaders around the world coming to the aid of their Bahá’í friends in Iran in an extraordinary wave of support is a powerful signal to the Islamic Republic that their co-religionists around the world condemn their actions.
“Statements of support from leading Muslims for the Bahá’ís in Ivel, who have lived there for more than 150 years with their Muslim neighbors, show that the Iranian government’s invocation of Islamic law is a thin veil covering its persecution of the Bahá’ís.”
In Sweden, 12 members of parliament and other elected representatives have strongly called on Iran to return the lands of the Bahá’ís of Ivel. The German Federal Government Commissioner for Global Freedom of Religion, Markus Grübel, also called for Iran to recognize the Bahá’ís as a religious community in the country and to end the “discrimination and persecution of Bahá’í communities.”
South Africa’s Legal Resources Centre, an organization known for its human rights work during apartheid, has also issued a letter condemning the property confiscations.
“The world is watching and is appalled by the Iranian government’s blatant injustices towards the Bahá’í community,” says Ms. Ala’i of the BIC. “The innocence of the Bahá’ís is more evident than ever to the international community and Iran is being held accountable for the gross injustices it has inflicted on the Bahá’í community in Iran. The government must take the necessary steps to not only return the lands to the Bahá’ís in Ivel but to end the systematic persecution of the Bahá’ís throughout the entire country once and for all.”
The history of land confiscation and mass displacement of Bahá’ís in Iran is detailed in a special section of the website of the Canadian Bahá’í community’s Office of Public Affairs.
BAHÁ’Í WORLD CENTRE — The Bahá’í World News Service looks back on a year like no other, providing an overview of the stories it has covered on developments in the global Bahá’í community that have strengthened resilience and offered hope in a time of great need.https://player.vimeo.com/video/495839889Developments in the global Bahá’í community in 2020
Responding to the pandemic
When the pandemic first hit, acts of solidarity throughout the world showed humanity how it could rally around an issue to alleviate suffering. The months since March have demonstrated more clearly than ever that every human being can become a protagonist of change. As people took action, a sense of collective purpose motivated yet more people to do whatever they could to be of service to their fellow citizens—creating a virtuous circle and giving rise to an unprecedented level of collective action.
In March, the News Service reported on the initial response of Bahá’í communities to the crisis as they quickly and creatively adapted to new forms of interaction suited to public health requirements and found ways to be of service to their societies.
In a suburb of New York City, a group of youth engaged in Bahá’í community-building efforts turned their attention to pressing needs arising from school closures.
Children in Luxembourg participating in moral education classes made cards to bring joy to health workers and others carrying out essential services, while children in Berlin, Germany, created drawings on the theme of hope for the residents of a home for the elderly. In Slovenia, the Bahá’ís of Bašelj connected food delivery services catering to restaurants to also deliver to homes. That month also saw Bahá’ís around the world marking Naw-Rúz—their new year and the first day of spring—by strengthening bonds of friendship and conveying messages of hope.
By April, as the spread of the coronavirus had become more apparent, the efforts of Bahá’í communities further intensified. In Canada, participants of a Bahá’í-inspired program for English learners found support in one another through difficult times. In Tunisia, the Bahá’ís of the country joined with diverse religious groups to call for both science and religion to guide an effective response. In the DRC, community ties enabled thousands of people to be kept informed of accurate information and advice, including on what crops to plant to ensure food security. In Kiyunga, Uganda, radio broadcasts prompted conversations across households on the importance of prayer as a source of strength. Bahá’í radio stations elsewhere found a renewed purpose, acting as a source of critical information and an anchor of community life to those living in rural areas.
In the months since April, it has become ever more clear that service to society and collective worship are essential elements in the life of a community that remains hopeful and perseveres in the face of a crisis. In Romania, participants in devotional gatherings open to all are finding their hearts to be “beating as one”. In South Africa, Bahá’í healthcare professionals, seeing potential in every human being to serve their society, have been drawing on the strength of the community to provide support to those recovering from the coronavirus.
In all places, youth have moved to the forefront of the grassroots response to the crisis. In Sierra Leone, young people created a film on preventive health measures, while in Italy youth explored profound themes related to social transformation in a series of short videos. Amid the pandemic and in the aftermath of the Beirut explosion, youth in the city drew on capacities they had gained in Bahá’í community-building efforts to create a disaster recovery network.
Over this period, the arts have played an important role in casting a light on themes that are captivating the public consciousness. Meanwhile, the Bahá’í World publication has released a series of articles on themes related to the global health crisis and major issues facing societies as they look ahead.
Pursuing long-term social and economic development endeavors
In addition to reporting on grassroots Bahá’í social and economic initiatives in response to the pandemic, the News Service also covered more complex projects and efforts by Bahá’í-inspired organizations as they adapted to circumstances arising from the health crisis.
The News Service reported on examples of initiatives to improve food security. In Vanuatu, participants in a Bahá’í-inspired educational program called Preparation for Social Action have been taking steps to not only maintain food supplies for their fellow citizens, but also to encourage others in their country to do the same. In Nepal, with many migrant workers returning home amid the pandemic, a Baha’i Local Spiritual Assembly took steps to enhance the community’s capacity to produce its own food.
In Colombia, FUNDAEC—a Baha’i-inspired organization based in Cali—turned its attention to supporting local food production initiatives, while fostering appreciation toward the land and the environment in communities throughout the country.
Some of the efforts covered in the area of education include the following: In Bolivia, a Bahá’í-inspired university has been supporting staff and students through challenging times and has given thoughtful consideration to identifying technologies suitable for present circumstances. In the Central African Republic, Indonesia and India—among other places—Bahá’í-inspired community schools have found creative ways of adapting, gaining insight into the role of teachers in times of crises. In the United States, constructive conversations among individuals, officials, and the police on racial equality have helped to create shared purpose among different segments of society toward improving systems of public safety.
Participating in the discourses of society
This past year, the News Service covered a variety of stories on the efforts of the Bahá’í community to contribute to social discourses.
In Jordan and other countries, Bahá’í communities have been creating spaces for journalists and different social actors to explore how the media can play a constructive role in society. In Indonesia, a series of seminars has tapped into a strong desire among officials, academics, and others to explore fundamental principles of a more peaceful society. In Canada and Austria, a podcast series and video blog respectively have been drawing insights from religion to provide new perspectives on issues of national concern. Participants of roundtable discussions in Kazakhstan and the Kurdistan region of Iraq have been exploring how spiritual principles that have drawn people together in this time can help shape public life in the future. In Chile, the Bahá’í community has been creating spaces alongside the constitutional process to examine with their fellow citizens the foundations for a materially and spiritually prosperous society.
In Australia, a two-year process of gatherings among diverse segments of society culminated in the release of Creating an Inclusive Narrative, a publication that offers insights on forging a common identity. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo and India, remarkable gatherings brought together chiefs to examine how to transcend traditional barriers and prejudices that keep people apart as they build toward lasting peace.
The Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity has been promoting gatherings for university students in which young people explore together questions concerning social change.
Persecution of the Bahá’ís in Iran and Yemen
At a time when the international community has been battling a global health crisis, the persecution of the Bahá’ís in Iran and Yemen has not relented.
A United Nations resolution, passed earlier this month by the General Assembly, condemned Iran’s ongoing violations of human rights, including those of the country’s Bahá’í community. This year Iranian authorities have escalated their persecution of the Bahá’ís through scores of baseless arrests, denial of the most basic civil rights, and restrictions in applying for a new national identification card. These actions have placed great pressures on individuals and families already facing a health crisis.
In Yemen, a court upheld a religiously-motivated death sentence against a Bahá’í earlier this year. Although he and five other Bahá’ís were later released from their wrongful detainment, the Bahá’í International Community remains gravely concerned and has called for the safeguarding of the rights of all Bahá’ís in Yemen to live according to their beliefs without risk of persecution.
Bahá’í Houses of Worship
The News Service covered stories this past year on how Bahá’í Houses of Worship have adapted to the pandemic while infusing wider segments of society with the spirit of collective worship and service. Stories also reported on advancements in the construction of Houses of Worship in Kenya and Papua New Guinea.
The beginning of this year saw the first steps being taken to prepare the site and lay the groundwork for the Shrine of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Coinciding with the start of construction, the mayor of ‘Akká and representatives of the city’s religious communities gathered to honor ‘Abdu’l-Bahá at a special ceremony.
Although certain operations had necessarily slowed or stopped when the pandemic hit, progress continued to be made with the approval of local authorities at each stage. By April work on the foundations was giving shape to an imprint of the design’s elegant geometry. In September the foundations were completed. By November, the first vertical elements were being raised.
BAHÁ’Í WORLD CENTRE — Since the completion of the foundations for the Shrine of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the first vertical elements are now being raised. The subterranean portion of the structure, which will lie beneath the circular geometry, is also beginning to take shape.
Work is advancing to lay the concrete platforms that will provide stability to the landscaping berms on either side of a central plaza.
The selection of photos below provides a view into the work currently underway.
As with the central foundations, many support piles were driven deep into the ground, and these are now being capped with a layer of reinforced concrete in several stages to create platforms for the landscaping berms.
A close up of a portion of the structure.
The design of the Shrine incorporates two sloping berms enclosing the central plaza. An intricate trellis above the plaza connects the berms to the inner part of the structure. A concrete platform is being prepared for each berm, providing stability to the landscaping that will sit above.
“Void former” blocks are fitted together to separate the concrete platform from the soil.
Once “void former” blocks are put in place, reinforcement bars are laid for the concrete pour.
As one segment of the platform is completed, preparation continues on the next. The construction of concrete platforms for the berms is nearing completion.
Step by step, the construction of the Shrine of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá continues.
TALAVERA, Philippines — Radio stations operated by Bahá’í communities in several countries have found a renewed purpose during the pandemic, acting as a source of critical information and an anchor of community life when other forms of interaction have been limited.
Radyo Bahá’í in the Central Luzon region of the Philippines has played a significant role during the health crisis in creating a sense of togetherness through participatory programs dedicated to prayer and uplifting music reflective of the culture of the region. Its broadcast radius of 90 kilometers has also allowed the station to transmit crucial messages to remote areas which would otherwise be difficult to reach.
Christine Flores, director of Radyo Bahá’í, says, “Families are spending so much more time together, and we hope to contribute to a home environment characterized by unity and cooperation. For example, prayers and songs are broadcast every hour during the day, many contributed by listeners. Praying regularly is key to upliftment and inspiration. We are spiritual beings, and it is natural for us to connect with our creator in our homes.”
The station is also assisting with educational needs in the region by collaborating with the country’s Department of Education. Regular broadcasts of education materials by Radyo Bahá’í reach thousands of children whose schools are closed because of public health measures. These educational broadcasts are supplemented with songs and stories inspired by the Bahá’í teachings on such themes as truthfulness, generosity, patience, and kindness.
“The radio has been an important instrument in fostering a sense of belonging and connection between people during a time of distancing,” says Mrs. Flores. “A collective spirit is needed to face this crisis. A shared identity is strengthened when people hear programs reflecting their culture in their own local language and when they are contributing to content. Normally, information and ideas are passed around as people meet each other, but now the radio station is helping fill this need in our region.”
Across the Pacific Ocean, a Bahá’í-inspired radio station in Panama has focused on inspiring acts of service and attending to practical needs during the pandemic. Listeners are given the opportunity to offer support to those living in rural areas struggling to access public services given the restrictions on movement.
Fabio Rodriguez, coordinator of the station, says, “Our programs emphasize service and the idea that all people have the right to contribute to society. The station welcomes people from the area to assist in the production of programs, who are able to convey the reality of their shared experiences and their hopes in a way that speaks to the hearts of their fellow community members. This in turn encourages more people to see themselves as active participants in shaping the life of their communities.
Elsewhere in Latin America, Chile Bahá’í Radio based in Labranza, Chile, has been in close dialogue with surrounding indigenous communities to ensure that programs speak to their needs and aspirations. One area of focus of the station has been the preservation of language and culture of the Mapuche people.
“The radio plays a vital role in promoting the noblest aspects of the Mapuche people, and contributes to a sense of hope and comfort in this crisis,” says the coordinator of the station, Alex Calfuquero.
“Early morning prayer is a fundamental tradition, and Mapuche prayers are often included in the station’s devotional programs, which are sometimes broadcast from the Bahá’í temple in Santiago.”
Katty Scoggin, who collaborates with the radio stations in Chile and Panama, reflects on recent experiences: “These Bahá’í radio stations have been operating for years and years. They have been a part of the local culture. These initiatives are not just a one-sided broadcast service, they have a meaningful presence in the communities they serve.
“In media, there are the people who create something, and the people who consume content—usually just as recipients. We are trying to learn about something different. These radio stations assist with raising capacity for service to society and give a voice to the whole community.”
It’s almost time for the Interfaith Mission Service annual event and this year promises to be an exciting and inspiring evening, VIA ZOOM!
Baha’is from Huntsville and Madison attended last year’s event at UAH and were delighted by the inclusion of the Faith in the program, and the mention of the station of Baha’u’llah by the keynote speaker.
For 50 years, the member congregations, as part of the “Power of We” network, have been filling gaps in community services by developing service agencies and working to transform systemic social injustice, racial inequity, and interfaith barriers.
By lifting our eyes and looking to the future, we learned about changing trends, such as increased diversity and the accompanying push back, and hunger for spirituality. We are now focusing on the moral and ethical challenges of the coming years—The Future is NOW! https://www.interfaithmissionservice.org/2020-ims-acac/
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic Of The Congo — Construction of the national Bahá’í House of Worship in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was inaugurated today (Sunday, Oct 18) with a groundbreaking ceremony on the site of the future temple and broadcast on national television. Situated on the outskirts of Kinshasa, the site was host to government officials, representatives of religious communities, and traditional chiefs. At the same time, celebrations were held across the vast country as countless people joined in prayer to mark this important milestone.
The National Spiritual Assembly, in a letter written for the occasion, says that the House of Worship embodies the essential elements of the Bahá’í concept of worship and service, “both so vital to the regeneration of the world. Therein lies the secret of the loftiness, the potency, and the unique position of the House of Worship as one of the most outstanding institutions conceived by Bahá’u’lláh. … The ceremony today has great significance, comparable to the sowing of a seed in the soil in the hope of seeing it grow and, before long, produce the most valuable fruits.”
The arrival of this long-awaited moment and what it represents has stirred communities throughout the country. Bashilwango Mbaleeko, secretary of the Regional Bahá’í Council of South Kivu, explains that although people throughout the vast country of the DRC are physically distant from the site, the spirit of oneness already emanating from that spot is fueling their efforts to serve their society with greater intensity. “Every step of progress has been celebrated across South Kivu and the country. We see the rise of this edifice as an outcome of decades of efforts toward social transformation.”
Lavoisier Mutombo Tshiongo, the secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the DRC, says that the presence of diverse people at the event signifies the unifying role of a House of Worship. “This is not only a Bahá’í place of worship, it is a House of Worship for everyone to offer prayers to their Creator. This temple will be the embodiment of unity and represents a new milestone in the development of Congolese society. In one of His writings, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has said that raising up such places of worship will allow people ‘to gather together, and, harmoniously attuned one to another, engage in prayer; with the result that out of this coming together, unity and affection shall grow and flourish in the human heart.’”
The immense impact of prayer on the patterns of community life was discussed by traditional chiefs in the Western Kasai region who had gathered on Friday to reflect on the House of Worship. Chief Bope Ngokadi of Mpempe village said, “We see in the Bahá’í devotional gatherings the involvement of diverse people; we are all walking together in unity. Praying has brought a positive impact, the village has changed. I have changed.
“People who were always in conflict and not talking together are now together in harmony. The power of the Word of God is immense. This is what has united those who were in conflict.
“Even as the chief of this locality I was not always united with other officials, but we have become so through devotional gatherings. This is what has allowed us to live as one community. This is what the House of Worship represents.”
The groundbreaking ceremony coincided with the Bahá’í Holy Day celebrating the Birth of the Báb. Current health guidelines allowed for a beautiful gathering to take place with the necessary protective measures. The ceremony, which was broadcast online through a live stream and covered on national TV news channels, culminated with the laying of a symbolic first stone on the spot where the new edifice will rise.
Plans to build a national House of Worship were announced in 2012. Since then the Bahá’ís of the DRC have been identifying architects and a suitable site for this unique structure.
This House of Worship is one of several Bahá’í temples under construction around the world, each with a unique design that reflects the unifying roles of worship and service. The design of the House of Worship in Kinshasa is inspired by traditional artworks, structures and natural features of the DRC. The image of the Congo River, whose tributaries gather rain from every part of the country into one great stream, symbolizes a coming together and uniting of the world and is expressed through the patterns that will adorn the outside of the dome in a style reminiscent of the artwork of various Congolese peoples.
SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Despite the challenges facing all educational institutions, Nur University in Bolivia has been striving to cope with present circumstances and adapt quickly by drawing on lessons learned from the first wave of COVID-19.
The Bahá’í-inspired educational institution has found two aspects of the learning experience to be essential during this time. One is that students should be closely engaged and not left to themselves. Another is that thoughtful consideration should be given to identifying technologies suitable for present circumstances.
“All of the staff are being especially thoughtful—for instance, trying to call students and determine their needs, and recording every online class for those who could not connect to live online sessions,” says William Shoaie, the rector of the university.
A special committee has been formed to look after the needs of students, speaking with them about their situation and helping them find accommodations where needed. Professional resources for medical advice and counselling have also been made available.
Conscious use of technology
With the move to online study, the university has been consciously selecting technologies for its operations. Mr. Shoaie says, “We are mindful that introducing any technology has implications for processes and relationships, because each technology favors certain kinds of interaction and can have long-lasting effects.”
In the first semester, which began in March, some teachers offered recorded lectures to students and interacted with them through group messages. Although this made lessons easily accessible, the collective experience of students learning together was lost. Some students were less engaged than those in classes that were held through group video discussions.
In the vision of Nur, education entails much more than conveying information and knowledge. “A lot of the learning process is based on interaction among diverse students and faculty, which provides something that the content of a course alone does not. People who study by themselves can learn the same subject matter, but in terms of the underlying skills, attitudes, and moral and spiritual qualities that one needs in order to contribute more effectively to society, it is better to work and learn with many different people.
“So an important aspect of adapting has been to maintain as much interaction as possible among staff and students.”
An expanded understanding of education
Mr. Shoaie explains that although the pandemic has created many challenges, the university sees new possibilities for enhancing educational approaches. “We are not simply trying to replicate previous dynamics and patterns,” he explains, “but are being proactive in improving the educational experience in ways that we could not have imagined before.
“Because teachers and students have been open to discovering new modes of interaction through the use of certain technologies, learning is no longer confined to set hours or a place. For example, students communicate in messaging groups when they have questions; teachers and other students respond, providing supplementary materials. Our minds were structured around meeting in person, but now the dynamics are more organic. The teacher’s role is that of a facilitator rather than someone who stands in front of a class and conveys knowledge. We have had to reconceptualize some things, seeing the learning process as much more engaging and participatory than before.
One student named Romina reflects on the transition in the mode of education, saying: “Even though this situation with virtual classes has been difficult, we have been encouraged by the perseverance and care of the university to continue, and have been provided with the tools needed.”
A unique feature of Nur University’s approach is that it promotes service to society as a critical element in one’s life.
“The spirit of service that we develop at Nur University,” Romina continues, “has meant that we have not been passive during this crisis. Rather, we have been joining friends and others to help alleviate suffering.”
All the changes that Nur University is making this year are allowing it not only to be a place where people are being educated, but to continue to serve as a body of people acting collectively to improve the condition of their society.
Sassan, a final-year student, says, “You can feel that the university has a new spirit this year. You can see it in the conversations friends are having and their commitment to serving their fellow citizens with a greater sense of purpose.
“The pandemic has strengthened the identity of students at Nur University who, as part of their education, are learning to be attentive to the needs of their society, seeing each other through this difficult time.”
Established 38 years ago in Santa Cruz, Nur University has grown to become a significant center of education in Bolivia. The university offers a range of programs in the arts and sciences and emphasizes the development of moral capacities as an important aspect of all areas of study.