Aya Chebbi, an international student from Tunisia, shares with us the importance of being an ambassador for her country and encourages other international students to be ambassadors as well.
One of the main reasons I applied for the Fulbright Scholarship was the chance I would be offered to be an ambassador not only of my country, but my whole region. As I hold the complex identity of being a Tunisian African Muslim Arab woman, I could break a lot of stereotypes and represent Tunisia’s revolution, the African unity, the Arab culture and the true Islam.
Unexpectedly, I’ve been sent to a very southern state “Georgia” and to a rural area “Statesboro”. I wasn’t sure that I would still be able to accomplish my mission with people I don’t fully understand because of their accent, lifestyle and orientations. However, it turned out to be the most enriching experience that I would have ever had in any other state in the US.
A college town, Statesboro is best known as the home to Georgia Southern University, a Carnegie doctoral research university, where I am teaching Arabic and taking some graduate courses. One of the great programs of the university, which now I proudly call it my university, is the Global Ambassadors Program. For me it is a win-win program because I am able to represent my country, region and culture and learn from the audience’s questions about their conceptions and misconceptions most of the time.
I have become very delighted whenever I get an email from the Center for International Studies to invite me to speak on or off campus. The first semester, I’ve been invited to some of the Global Citizen classes on campus as well as high schools around Statesboro. This semester, the experience has been even more intense and interesting.
Last week, I had been invited to speak at Statesboro First United Methodist Church. When I received that email I was surprised to be invited as a Muslim in a very conservative area to speak in a church. Though last year I had spoken at the National Cathedral School, but that was on the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. where my expectations were more of an open community to other religions and cultures. However, the invitation was in particular, from the United Methodist Women. I was then more excited to meet these ladies, share and learn from them.
I was first wondering what I am supposed to wear for such an occasion. I looked into my closet for a dress but most of them were tight or short. I felt that wouldn’t be appropriate. I told some friends that I am going to a church and they advised me not to wear boots or sandals but only formal shoes.
It was 8:00am, slowly raining outside. I decided at the end to put my Tunisian dress on, my black shoes, Tunisian shachia (hat), and also my new earrings with Tunisian flag. I looked at the mirror and I felt 100% Tunisian.
At 9:30am, I arrived to the church on time. It was very beautiful old huge building. We had refreshments at first and to my surprise the women’s age ranged between the 40’s and the 80’s. Actually, even while I was leaving I met a woman celebrating her 100 birthday. I started interacting with them and they all welcomed me with the caring smile on their faces the whole time. After keynotes from the president of the organization, prayers and reciting the purpose of the United Methodist Church, the floor was mine.
I talked about myself, my work, studies and where I come from, but the interesting part for me is, as usual, the questions. This group of pretty women didn’t only ask the regular questions about my language, food or weather, but also about politics, youth, and activism. Some asked me about the security in Egypt, others about the social media role in the revolution and many other issues. I was answering their questions very impressed how informed and connected they were to what is happening outside Georgia and the US.
They asked me why I came to Statesboro, in particular, and what I thought about it. I told them that I had been picked by the university and didn’t choose to come to Statesboro. I was also telling them about my anecdotes during my first days of summer here and my feelings of “what am I doing here, in the middle of nowhere?!” but at the same I was also telling myself inside “what have I just said? Maybe I shouldn’t”. Then, an unexpected spontaneous laughter arises from everyone in the room. I had been in many situations of cultural clashes where I usually said something that might be offensive to Americans, so I learned to watch what I say. However, with these ladies, I felt so comfortable to speak without thinking about misunderstanding.
Moreover, they also asked about my family. Once I told them I was the only child, they directly asked about my mom. I told them that my mom wants me to get married as soon as possible to see her grandsons, and my mom always said: “you give the children and go travel wherever you want”. While I was telling about my mom’s worries, I saw in their eyes sympathy with her, because they were mothers and grandmothers themselves. I even felt my mom’s love and wonder in their eyes, looking at me with a lot of caring.
By the end of the meeting, many of them came to me and held my hand with words of gratitude, support and inspiration. I couldn’t of said more than “thank you” because they don’t know that I learned from them as much as they did from me. Beside organizing these speakers’ events, these active women were regularly attending workshops and conferences, doing research and discussing issues such as immigration and conflicts, organizing charity events among other work they do.
Actually, we all have stereotypes, certain expectations and prejudices of people around us or even those we have never met. These women have broken all expectations with their openness, knowledge, hard work and determination to serve their communities and help each other.
It was time to leave the warm room full of laughter, love and sharing. I left with a smile on the face, peace in the heart and a lot of knowledge and enlightenment.