A Global Education
Last week, the interns visited the sparkling, new campus of An-Najah University, where palm trees evoked the beach and the buildings – Faculties of Physical Education and Law, the library and the media center – opened onto stunning views over the valley. Though the landscape was different, the views of the mountains couldn’t help but remind me of my own beloved Middlebury. As we toured the buildings, we passed a miniature natural history display with taxonomied hedgehogs, foxes, and hawks; a display of work from students at the Faculty of Fine Arts that inspired me for my own art classes; and, of course, throngs of students dilly-dallying on their way to classes.
To get a better taste of university life beyond the facilities, I spoke to the lovely Ruba Faris - my translator in my arts and crafts class - about her college experience and her hopes for the future as graduation looms. Ruba is a senior studying English Language and Literature and scheduled to graduate after two semesters. Attending Najah had been a life-long dream of hers since her childhood, when her mother said she should strive for either Najah or Bir Zeit. Like any major-changing college student who has juggled family influences and changing interests, Ruba’s plans evolved along the way. She entered college hoping to study journalism, but her father convinced her that English would be a more beneficial degree, assuring her she could study whatever she wanted in graduate school. Ruba didn’t like English at first, but praise from her professors warmed her to the subject and opened new doors for her.
Along the way, her college experience had some familiar highs and lows. On one hand, she said she loved all the opportunities that An-Najah offered her, and she noted that the education was particularly strong in her department. Because it’s a big university, she encountered many different people, personalities, and cultures. At the same time, that hugeness sometimes meant crowded classes, with registration for many classes closing quickly, and professors’ attentions were often divided between research and teaching. She also noted that the financial side could be tricky: not all students could afford tuition and the university was short on scholarships. (She herself was about to earn one, but the university changed the GPA cut-off on her.)
Ruba is optimistic about her own future and those of her peers. Even though Palestine is blocked from the rest of the world, there are many opportunities here, she said, and it’s difficult but not impossible to access them. With the right personality and attitude, anyone can do what they want. I asked Ruba if that was a typical attitude, and she laughed – most people consider her strange for her Pollyanna approach to post-graduation life, she said, and assume that they’ll finish move back home after graduation or get a job that doesn’t match their degrees or their interests – a refrain that is all-to-familiar to me and my recession-era American classmates.
But Ruba really believes that every student can succeed, with the right determination, manner of thinking, and personality – it depends on your personality, the opportunities available in Palestine, financial circumstances, and, sometimes, being noticed by the right professor or having the right door opened for you. As for Ruba, she hopes to continue as a translator outside of Palestine after graduation, in part because there aren’t many masters’ programs in Palestine and none in translation.
Between the hassles of registration and the excitement of being immersed in a challenging new environment, Ruba’s story was, in many ways, a familiar one. Speaking with Ruba was truly impressive to me: not because she is a Palestinian who has overcome adversity, but because she is a determined young woman who has worked hard, taken advantage of opportunities she’s been offered, and accomplished that always-elusive task of finding one’s path in life. And I consider myself lucky that my own wandering, post-graduation, twenty-something path is crossing with hers for these few months.
At the end of our first week, our very dedicated translators took us on a tour of their university. Stepping into An-Najah, Palestine’s largest university was very much like transitioning into a limbo, a bizarre domain that doesn’t harmonize with its surroundings. Just walking up the steps and reaching the platform gives the excursionist the sensation of walking into a beach resort, but when you adjust your eyes you realize that where the beach and luscious sand should be waiting for you there are simply more mountains. The university is one of the few settings in which both genders can coexist with less persecution and preoccupation of society’s standards and expectations. Seeing boys and girls speaking to each other adds to the wonderland effect of the university. For many students, starting university is the first time they’ve ever been in such close proximity to the opposite sex. Primary education is gender segregated in Nablus.
As we walked by classrooms and saw students attentively listening to their professors, I thought about the value of an education. For many of us in the United States, college is indubitably the next step. There is less hesitation on why to go to school and more emphasis on where. That’s just how the formula works: you go to school + get good grades = job. Somewhere along the pass four years that formula has been subjected to many derivatives and no longer producing the same output. As a recent graduate, I feel that I have somehow been cheated out of the expected outcome. Speaking with my translator Ahmed, I know that I am not the only one feeling the same frustrations and angst. Ahmed is also a recent graduate from An-Najah, who majored in what he loved: English. Now the joy of graduation has ended and he finds himself just like many other Palestinians, unemployed. Unemployment estimates in Nablus range from 30-60% depending on the area. As cheated as I may feel, it doesn’t compare to knowing that after graduation finding a job may be mission impossible, even if this desired job has nothing to do with your aspiration and dreams. Like many of his counterparts in the United States, Ahmed will probably continue on pursing other degrees if he does not find employment in the near future, but unlike Americans, if Ahmed does follow this choice he wont find himself drowning in school loans. A semester at An-Najah may cost the equivalent of $1000 and that’s not counting financial aid.
One of my favorite parts of being here at TYO is having a chance to get to know other staff and volunteers at the center. Even though I studied Arabic in college, many of the kids I work with cannot understand me because I don't speak Palestinian dialect. Luckily for me, TYO provides me with a translator in my classes for two hours every day. Our translators are invaluable in the classroom and for becoming acquainted with our other volunteers, who don't necessarily speak any English. The volunteer program itself is highly structured and demanding, with obligatory trainings every session and mandatory attendance to each weekday class. When I think about requiring this kind of commitment from American college students for a volunteer opportunity, I appreciate our volunteers so much more.
This week our translators took us on a tour of An-Najah University here in Nablus. One of the national public universities of Palestine, An-Najah has a long history of serving the Palestinian people. During the First Intifada, the University was closed by the Israeli military, but the faculty continued to offer classes in private residences and other locales. Walking around campus was similar to college tours in the US: building after building full of similar looking classrooms, large open areas for students to congregate, and hundreds of students milling around after class. The only noticeable difference was that the groups of students were, for the most part, gender segregated.
My translator, Jamila, is a student at An-Najah and spends her free time volunteering here in the center. When I ask her about student life, I'm surprised by her nonchalance. Students traveling between nearby villages can have difficulty commuting to class. Those that do graduate find themselves in a difficult position. Jamila has few opportunities for jobs here in Nablus. She dreams of working as a translator after she graduates, but understands that her best chance for employment might be in an elementary school. Even teaching jobs are difficult to come by, becoming available only when other teachers take maternity leave or retire. And Jamila will graduate with one of the most marketable degrees that a Palestinian can have.
Reflecting on how I felt after my own graduation in August and the few months between then and now, one thing keeps coming to mind: uncertainty. For many students in the US, entering the job market has become more and more difficult in recent years. However, the idea that I might spend years without gainful employment never crossed my mind; I've always assumed that if I want to work, I can. For American graduates, uncertainty can be scary, but also exciting, hopeful. Unfortunately for too many Palestinian graduates, uncertainty has other implications. In Nablus, the unemployment rate is close to 40%; the basic ability to support a family is not a fair assumption. Simply traveling to a job interview in Jerusalem requires special permission; not to mention the task of commuting to work every day after being hired.
Jamila is fortunate. With some help from TYO staff, she's applied to attend an international conference for students in the US in March. I hope this is one opportunity that she doesn't have to miss.
The mixing of genders is a rare find in the city of Nablus. Outside of one’s family, it is generally expected that men will only socialize with other men, and women with other women. There are separate rooms for the sexes at weddings, different times allotted for gym use, and of course, all boys or all girls schooling. Thus, when students arrive at An Najah University, a coed institution, for many it is the first time they are really interacting with a member of the opposite sex. While touring the campus this past week, I was informed that for some students, the mere adjustment to this change can interfere with their learning process when they first begin their studies.
After my first two weeks of classes, I feel like I have been witness to similar happenings in my classroom. The students that we serve grow up in the same environment as the An Najah students, and for most, TYO is the only time they intermix with members of the opposite sex. In the first week of the session, it was easy to see how foreign the concept was every time I had my students line up or form a circle. Each time, they were inevitably split with the girls on one side and boys on the other. Likewise, whenever a game was played, the children would clump together in groups divided by sex.
As one of the goals of my class is to promote communication skills, part of my battle will be having the students recognize each other as members of the same team, and not differentiate each other by gender. With games and activities that are designed to promote collaboration and teamwork, I am working to break down these social barriers. While they certainly are not best friends yet, I am pleased to say that I am already seeing the effects that the TYO environment is having on the children by the way they work and play together now. Hopefully, by the end of the session, the students will not see each other as just boys or girls, but all members of the TYO family.