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IthaQatar ambassadors build friendships, 'feel the oneness' across campuses

By any linear measure, the distance between Cornell's Ithaca campus and Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar (WCMC-Q) adds up to ... well, a very long plane flight.

But as 12 WCMC-Q students and 15 or so Cornell IthaQatar ambassadors discovered this summer, the metaphorical distance -- between cultures, values, personal aspirations, interests, senses of humor -- is hardly noticeable at all.

"From most of the students I've spoken to, the thing that seems most surprising is how many similarities we share," said Andrew Handel '08, an IthaQatar program leader, as the summer program wound down.

Students from WCMC-Q have been coming to Ithaca for research experience through the Hughes Scholars program every summer since 2003. But this year was the first since the IthaQatar Ambassadors program was launched last year by WCMC-Q medical student Pankit Vachhani '12 and Student Assembly executive board members C.J. Slicklen '09, Elan Greenberg '08 and Adam Gay '08.

The organization's goal: Bring Cornell students in Ithaca and Doha closer together -- literally and figuratively. And in part, that meant organizing summer activities that would link WCMC-Q's summer researchers with Cornell students in Ithaca.

"We hear a lot about Ithaca; we hear about different areas to go, different things to see," said Vachhani, who landed in Ithaca with 11 of his classmates on May 31. "But having ambassadors as guides was a great experience as they knew the places really well."

With funding from the Office of the Dean of Students, the students put together a program of weekend excursions including campus tours, canoeing and a day at the Hoffman Challenge Course, as well as picnics, dinner outings and trips (through the International Students and Scholars Office) to Boston and Niagara Falls.

Ithaca students on campus for the summer heard about the program through friends and joined in. By the end of the summer, some, like Susan Duan '09, a biology major also in the Hughes program, were thinking about visiting Qatar -- as exchange students, if the option becomes available, or as TAs for the premedical program.

And Vachhani and his classmates went home Aug. 3 with ideas for promoting more extensive connections between the campuses. Starting this fall, for example, the Cornell Daily Sun's Eclipse publication will feature a regular column from Qatar -- written, at least at first, by Vachhani. "And if I get a positive response, which I think I will in Qatar, It won't be just me; there will be many writers who will write on a regular basis," Vachhani said.

The strengthening bonds offer a fundamental lesson for students on both the Ithaca and Qatar campuses, said Dean of Students Kent Hubbell, who met with Handel and Vachhani for a status report near the end of the eight-week program in Ithaca.

"That's one of the great things one observes when you travel around the world: There is an awful lot in common. Life is essentially very similar, despite one's cultural and ethnic backgrounds," Hubbell said.

And with more ideas on the table -- including exchange programs during the academic year that would send Qatar students to Ithaca or vice-versa -- the connections will only get stronger, Vachhani said.

"We also feel that oneness, that we are a part of this institution. Everyone is amazing in Ithaca. That has been my experience -- not just mine, but everyone's," Vachhani said. "This is just the beginning of a friendship."

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