Back to School Uncertainties Force AHA Foundation Campus Program to Reconfigure

AHA Foundation's Critical Thinking Unit in 2019 at the annual CTU training in Washington D.C.

August 26, 2020

 The Critical Thinking Unit is AHA Foundation’s campus program run in partnership with another non-profit – Ideas Beyond Borders. For three years now, they have been defending freedom of speech and hosting events about female genital mutilation, child marriage, honor violence, and countering Islamism at their universities. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to slow down their efforts. Program Coordinator, Natalie Arroyo, describes the challenges she and the Fellows have faced, the turning point and their path forward.


At the onset of the pandemic, I was promoted into the role of the Program Coordinator at AHA Foundation. This meant I would be leading the efforts of our college campus program, the Critical Thinking Unit (CTU), just as major disruptions in university life were starting to unfold across our nation. 

I have previously supported the campus program efforts. I worked behind the scenes at different CTU trainings and events so I was very familiar with the program and I was excited to take over and expand the program. But the idea of becoming responsible for an entire program and my own fellows in the midst of a pandemic was simultaneously exhilarating and nerve-wracking.

Campus Program Coordinator Natalie Arroyo at AHA Foundation’s 2019 CTU training in Washington D.C.

COVID-19 has disrupted all of our lives. For school-age children, university students and their families preparing for a new school year, the past few weeks have been especially hectic. The uncertainty of in-person classes and our ability to pull off digital school have filled family discussions and media coverage around the country.

The CTU program was no exception. Our first big challenge was implementing the summer training program, a highly-anticipated event our fellows look forward to every year. I helped organize this event in the past and it has always been one of my favorite work events. Because all of the students are based across the country, this once-a-year, two-day, in-person meeting gives everyone the special opportunity to socialize and network with like-minded individuals. I especially enjoyed seeing students in past trainings bond and unify as a team while working and collaborating on their projects.

When I realized I would not have the opportunity to host this training in-person this year, I was deeply disappointed. More so, I was worried about a virtual training: will it be enough…will we fail…will students have the same experience as in the past…will they walk away fully prepared for their roles…. Doubts like these overwhelmed me in waves, chipping away at my confidence. 

At the same time, as summer months were unfolding, it became increasingly clear that the battle for free speech and critical thinking—the fight at the heart of CTU—is even more important now as “cancel culture” tries to silence differing points of view in public debate. After hearing Ayaan on Martha MacCallum speak about how our society is at a crossroads of moving from an open society to a closed society where critical thinking is discouraged and seen as harmful, it became evident the CTU needed to double its efforts and reimagine how to run the program. We needed to act fast.

I decided to pivot to a virtual training over five weeks this summer. We invited survivors of female genital mutilation and forced marriage, Muslim reformers, and experts on gender-based violence in the U.S. to join our call and engage with the fellows. The students were encouraged to ask questions while learning more about each speaker’s causes that the fellows will be promoting this fall.  Despite my fears that the training would be rendered unsuccessful, we completed our first virtual summer training program this week! I am so proud of the fellows for buckling down and committing to learning the content even though we had roadblocks thrown in our way.

If you are an undergraduate or law student, and would be interested in joining our Fellowship, please complete the application form because we are forming a new Fall Cohort!

But we are far away from the finish line. Challenges will continue to emerge. For example, with almost every university offering solely online classes, some students have chosen to take time off of school, which is understandable, but extremely difficult for our program. We see these as temporary setbacks, and the fellows and I have chosen not to accept any issues we encounter as a defeat.  

Instead, our fellows are harnessing their creativity and founding new ways to urge activism in their communities even with social distancing limitations. They have moved their debates and activism online to Zoom chats and global video conferences. Their commitment to fostering critical thinking and dedication to women’s and girls’ safety is inspirational. 

This semester, CTU will look different than in previous years. Instead of filling auditoriums with students, professors, and community members eager to learn and discuss meaningful topics, we will all be at home in front of our computers. While it is disappointing that we cannot see each other and converse in-person, we are choosing to see the positive side in this unprecedented time. 

The Critical Thinking Unit’s virtual training, held in the summer of 2020.

Our fellows and I are excited to continue our activism through a new virtual medium. This means, no matter where someone is located, we can reach them with our message. There is no travel required, just simply logging onto your computer! This is an exciting development for our fellowship program and may be a new tactic to employ in the future, even after the pandemic has subsided.

This month our student fellows are returning to their campuses as advocates of critical thinking and free speech. They may face pushback or engage in uncomfortable conversations, but as Ayaan says, we must fight to keep an open society. Fear-mongering cannot be tolerated, and we are at a crossroads in America. We must choose freedom over fear, and stay committed to our principles. We are thrilled to continue our important work on college campuses this fall, even if it is virtual. 

We hope to have many of you join our webinars, and engage with our fellows and speakers on these topics this fall. You can receive updates for our events by joining our newsletter. When you share our content on social media, you help amplify our ideas into new spaces. The more people we engage, the stronger our community becomes! I hope I can count on your support in this way.


About Critical Thinking Unit: As the Critical Thinking Unit heads into its fourth year on campuses, we have so much to celebrate. Since the inception of the program, we have hosted over 40 events at 24 campuses across North America reaching over half a million people with new knowledge and perspectives. That is an amazing feat for a nonprofit of our size, but it is more of a testament to the support we receive. If it wasn’t for our amazing donors, these goals could never be accomplished.  Read more.

More about AHA’s Critical Thinking Unit:

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