Sarra Safhi — Fulbright Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) 2019 -2020
I was completely anxious before my first class as a primary Arabic instructor at Ramapo College of New Jersey.
I have had a long teaching experience in Morocco before getting my Fulbright grant as an FLTA in 2019. However, the idea of teaching in a college in the United States made me have butterflies before that first class: I simply didn’t know what to expect.
It amazingly went so well. Students were of different age range, different backgrounds, different races, and even pursuing different fields of study. They were so enthusiastic about learning Arabic and getting to know more about Morocco and me.
At a moment, unexpectedly, one of the students stood up and left the class without saying a word. It made me anxious and concerned. I kept myself busy explaining the rest of the lesson but was worried about what might have gone wrong for him to leave. When he came back, a few minutes later, he had a cup of coffee in one hand and a cheese bagel in the other. He smiled at me and went back to his seat as nothing happened! However, for me, something happened. I expected students to ask for permission before leaving the class. At least, this was how it worked in all the Moroccan educational institutions I studied and worked in. That was the first laugh I had at myself!
This funny incident opened my eyes to what I considered the “norms” of a class. It changed my understanding of the standards of what is acceptable inside a classroom and what is not. My American students used to constantly comment on my outfit and used to courteously ask a lot of direct personal questions. The kind of friendly questions that are culturally impossible to address to a professor in Morocco.
Over time, I became more aware of how cultural differences were clearly reflected in an academic setting. I witnessed students unexpectedly dancing in class or loudly singing in the cafeteria with everyone else clapping in glee. I remember one of my classmates (as I was taking two courses per semester as a part of my grant) who always had her crochet hook with her and who would stop creating her artistic textile to answer the professor’s questions then casually go back to her activity. Reflecting on these instances besides others made me realize that professors embraced a welcoming and inclusive learning environment. It not only widened my understanding of a global classroom but also deepened my ability to get students involved in the active construction of knowledge. Thus, upon my return to Morocco, I tried to make benefit of all the things I learned. I successively encouraged my students to express themselves more freely, welcomed their questions, and motivated them to apply for grants. Sadly, I couldn’t organize big cultural events due to the sanitary health protocol adopted by the Moroccan Ministries of Health and Education.
Fulbright, for me, is not only about teaching. It is a golden chance to exchange cultures and reflect on oneself. I never realized that I am a combination of various layers of identities before the grant. I profoundly felt connected to Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians, Libyans, Egyptians, Africans, Middle-Easterns, Arabs, Amazigh, and Muslims. I am a mixture of interrelated identities that weren’t visible to me when I was back home.
As a Fulbrighter, one serves as an ambassador of their own country and culture. Interestingly, when in the States, I felt I was not treated as an individual, but basically as a Nation in itself. Thus, I was constantly aware I had to represent this nation in the best way possible. I met people who didn’t know where Morocco is exactly located, those who had never met any Moroccan before myself, and even those who never heard of Morocco at all.
Having that said, it is important to mention that sharing culture is not a one-way direction. It is a progressive exchange that allows the grantee to learn about the United States and its diversity as much as they highlight theirs. Personally, America’s great cultural diversity deeply broadened my understanding of what humanity is, made me feel I was a citizen of the world, and gave me a more cosmopolitan attitude. The pace with which I had been learning and growing daily when I was there was tremendous. Every single thing seemed a lesson for me.
My Fulbright grant doesn’t seem to end by getting back home. It is a continuous mission to impact and connect with the rest of the world: my American students and colleagues, my international fellow FLTAs and the friends I made during my stay in the United States. Being an alumnus of the program makes me strongly engaged with the worldwide community of Fulbright. Even after returning home, I got invited several times as a guest speaker to virtually lecture on Morocco at Ramapo College of New Jersey. Besides, I took part in the summer orientation organized by the University of Oregon for the new cohort of FLTAs, and I attended online events designed for alumni.
My grant coincided with two important events in the country: the global COVID-19 pandemic and the incident of George Floyd. Firstly, the pandemic helped me see how one of the most developed countries responded to a global health emergency in terms of health care and safety measures. As far as my duties were concerned, I had to teach online. That was a completely new experience for me and a great thing to learn to do. Shifting to online Arabic teaching necessitated learning new skills and investing more time in making what looks like a difficult language easy and fun to learn. An important note to highlight: It felt so comfortable to teach in pajamas and slippers!
Secondly, the George Floyd incident brought out the Afro-American issues and helped me see the Black Movement from inside the country. Mass protests demanding justice for George Floyd everywhere and even in my county. Sometimes the protests turned violent at the end. It was an important event to witness and reflect on. Consequently, I had the chance to talk to my American friends about the social movement of Black Lives Matter and share thoughts and opinions about human rights all around the world.
I gratefully and so fondly reflect on my Fulbright experience. It made me more confident about myself and my abilities. In addition to that, my stay in the States during the grant encouraged me to see places I never dreamed to visit. What about spending one of your birthdays in Miami? Yes! I did that as well. Fulbright literally gave me wings! To top it all, Fulbright gave me more insurance to go forward and be confident to apply to other fellowships.
If I am to summarize my Fulbright experience in one word, it would be “Growth”.