They had the words. They had the skills. They had the drive and the dedication. And, once they had the right opportunity, the students at the University of Bahrain finally had everything they needed: They had the confidence.

“That’s really what we gave them – the opportunity and confidence to express themselves,” says Emma Stough, a student in the College of Charleston’s M.F.A. in creative writing program who – along with fellow M.F.A. candidate Christine McSwain ’15 ­– spent the spring 2018 semester mentoring 12 undergraduates from the University of Bahrain in the art and practice of writing fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction. “For most of them, this was the first time they had the space to write, and that was really cool to be able to give them.”

It was also really cool to be able to give them an anthology of their work – in person.

M.F.A. candidates Christine McSwain (far left) and Emma Stough (far right) speak with fellow writers at the University of Bahrain. (Photos provided)

After a semester of weekly Skype classes, Stough, McSwain and Bret Lott – English professor and director of the College’s M.F.A. program – traveled to Bahrain to deliver the anthology and celebrate the writing collaboration with their students. The trio held a formal reading with their students and led workshops with other university students, high school students and creative writing teachers.

The project was organized by Lott and David Dellar from the American Studies Institute and funded by a grant from the United States Embassy in Bahrain. The grant, which was renewed this fall, promises to continue this cross-cultural exchange between the College of Charleston and the University of Bahrain in spring 2019, when two new CofC mentors and a new cohort of students in Bahrain will again have the opportunity to learn from one another through the power of the written word.

“Writing is something that unites us – it transcends location,” says McSwain. “I was proud to give to them the confidence and momentum they needed to grow into their writing.”

A University of Bahrain student.

And, by the time McSwain and Stough arrived in Bahrain, the students had done just that.

“They were our peers then – we were all just friends trying to write,” says Stough. “It was awesome just getting to talk to them in person, knowing where they come from and seeing the world from their point of view.”

McSwain agrees, “I’d never been to that part of the world – and, of course, everything was so different – so it was comforting to walk in and see their familiar faces. It was like seeing old friends when we first saw them at the ceremony.”

At that ceremony, the students read some of their works and were awarded certificates of achievement (they did not get university credit for participating in the program) and copies of their anthology, Under the Bahraini Sky.

“Their reactions to the journals were neat to watch,” says Lott. “That has a lot of value for them – seeing their names on the printed page was a big thing for their confidence.”

Over the five days the CofC team spent in Bahrain, they conducted a variety of workshops both on the University of Bahrain campus and off, met with U.S. Ambassadors Justin Siberell and William Roebuck at the U.S. Embassy and even appeared on Bahrain International TV when Bahrain Today featured the writing collaboration and interviewed the students about their writing experience, styles and advice (video below).

But everyone agrees: The best part of the trip was the Bahrain Writers’ Circle at Mashq Art Gallery, where students and mentors read some of their work.

“It was incredible the way they engaged confidently with this group of established writers,” says McSwain. “There was something really beautiful about hearing what they had to say. Plus, it gave them an opportunity to discover another community of writers right there in Bahrain.”

Fostering a sense of community for the students was one of the project’s goals from the beginning.

“I think it’s important for them to know there are always people out there to hear you – that your voice matters. Before, they didn’t feel like they had community. They felt alone,” says McSwain. “So, we got together 12 people who like to write, and now they have a community. And it doesn’t end because we left – they’ll always have writing to keep them together.”

In fact, since the CofC team left, the students have started a writing club.

“That they have the confidence to do that just makes the whole thing even better,” says Stough. “I think knowing that interacting with other writers internationally or within their own community isn’t scary – that you don’t have to have an M.F.A. to be a writer – was really inspiring to them. It’s a lot less intimidating once you realize there doesn’t always have to be a higher purpose to writing. It can just be a great outlet to express yourself.”

Lott says that’s what makes the experience between the CofC mentors and the students in Bahrain so powerful.

“They gave their students permission to be whoever they are with confidence,” says Lott of McSwain and Stough. “That’s the kind of impact we all want to have as educators.”

The impact the students had on McSwain and Stough was pretty powerful, too. As they say in the travelogue they kept on the M.F.A. program’s blog, the Bahrain project helped them “grow as students, writers, future educators and – perhaps most importantly – as human beings.”

And they say that with absolute confidence.