Iowa State honors seminar deepens understanding of global problems, encourages action

Taoutel honors seminar

Jean-Pierre Taoutel speaks during the honors seminar he leads in Pearson Hall. Larger photo. Photos by Christopher Gannon.

AMES, Iowa – It’s one thing to be aware of the world’s ills. It’s another to think critically about the ways you can help solve them.

That’s what Jean-Pierre Taoutel’s honors seminar, “That’s Me in the Corner,” is taking on this semester. Students in Iowa State University’s Honors Program enroll in these one- or two-credit special classes as part of their requirements to graduate with honors. These seminars focus on wide-ranging topics that engage students in a high level of critical thinking and discussion.

On the first day of Taoutel’s seminar, each student received a photo. The photos show people in the midst of problems around the globe, from child soldiers to electronic waste to forced prostitution.

“I asked them, ‘Who is this person? How did they arrive at this situation?’” said Taoutel, senior lecturer in Arabic and French in the world languages and cultures department.

Every Monday, one student delivers a presentation based on the issue depicted in his or her photo.

“The idea is to make students aware of what’s affecting people around the world that doesn’t make the headlines, and encourage them not to be quick to judge,” Taoutel said.

Eye-opening experience

Rachael Brady, a junior in biology from Adel, recently gave a presentation on organ trafficking.

Organ trafficking – which is illegal – is due in part to a global organ shortage. In the United States alone, about 115,000 people are on waiting lists for an organ transplant, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

Then she opened it up for discussion, and her peers had a lot to say.

Brady delved into the statistics of organ trafficking and the stories of two men who fell victim to the trade – a British man allegedly murdered for his organs and a Pakistani man caught in a kidney trafficking ring but rescued hours before his kidney was to be removed.Then she opened it up for discussion, and her peers had a lot to say.

Meaghan Sievers, a junior in kinesiology and health from Gary, South Dakota, had her laptop handy, frequently pulling up statistics. One in particular she found shocking: Fewer than half of American adults are registered as organ donors.

Joe Skipor, a senior in kinesiology and health from Necedah, Wisconsin, often played devil’s advocate or posed philosophical questions: “Do you think it’s part of our responsibility to be an organ donor?”

They discussed practices in other countries. In Wales, for example, organ donation is opt-out rather than the United States’ opt-in system.

“I have a friend in France who does this,” Taoutel told the class. “She has to go and ask the family. The son dies, everyone is crying and then you show up and say, ‘Would you consider donating his organs?’ These are people who maybe would have considered it but they’re still dealing with the shock of the death, and they may say no.”

Taoutel steered the discussion to the people who become donors in the organ trafficking system, either out of misinformation, desperation or deception. How can we help them?

Taoutel honors seminar

Students look at a projection while learning about organ trafficking during an honors seminar in Pearson Hall. Larger photo.

Awareness to action

“The main goal of the seminar is beyond not to judge; it’s to reflect on ‘Is there anyone doing something about this?’” Taoutel said. “How can we help? Even here in Ames, Iowa, what can we do? I tell the students that they might work for big corporations in the future. They will face ethical decisions: Will the corporation’s profit be more valuable than people’s lives?” 

It’s not as if the students solve each of the world’s problems in an hour class once a week. But it gets them brainstorming. Each class begins with Taoutel asking what has caught their attention in the news lately.

“We talk about news because a lot of students these days don’t read the news,” Taoutel said. “I want them to think, and not to judge. Your immediate reaction when you hear ‘prostitution,’ for example, is a negative one. But think deeper: How do people get in these situations, and what can we do to help?”

Taoutel explained his point by describing a cartoon by French designer and illustrator Jean-Michel Ucciani. A mother and her child are watching the news about a disaster, and the reporter says the nationalities of the victims. The child asks why that detail is reported, and the mother responds, “To see if we care or not.”

Skipor said he picked this seminar because it’s “not like other classes I’ve had before.”

“People are missing out on world issues because they don’t affect us directly, or we believe they don’t affect us,” Skipor said. “I never knew the severity of these issues, because I’ve never heard about the direct impacts before. In general, we know these problems are not good, but it’s been eye-opening to see the impact based on statistics and specific examples.”