Fellows' Reflections: Hannah Byrd

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I have been fortunate to have Tasnime work as my teaching assistant for the after school program I teach for ClubAnglais at the Canadian School of Tunis for four months. She graciously agreed to share her perspective on Tunisia for this blog.

Q: Thank you, Tasnime, for agreeing to share your perspective on Tunisia with us! Can you give a little background as to who you are?

A: My name is Tasnime Hamdi and I am 22 years old. I’m a medical student at the Medicine School of Tunis and I live in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia.

Q: How would you describe Tunisia to someone who had never visited before?

A: Cosmopolitan, traditional, and modern are the first three words to come to mind when I think of how to describe Tunisia to a foreigner.

Tunisia is cosmopolitan because Tunisians are ethnically diverse due to the rich history of Carthaginians, Romans, Turks, Spanish, and Arabs settling in Tunisia among the indigenous peoples called Amazigh. In addition to diverse physical appearances, Tunisia’s history manifests itself in our language. The Tunisian dialect is not just Arabic but includes terms from the languages of all the groups that have settled here. The result is a beautiful, mixed language with a North African spirit.

Tunisia is traditional because we continue to practice Tunisian customs in our daily life. This includes eating traditional Tunisian food, warmly greeting our friends and family with kisses, and using old proverbs in our speech. Tunisia is modern because our country has done a lot to advance women’s rights and expand women’s power in society. There are many laws that ensure equality between men and women and protect women from all types of violence and harassment. Tunisia is also the only Muslim-majority country that bans polygamy. Apart from legal protections, Tunisian women are leaders in many fields like medicine and politics. Tunisia actually has more female than male college graduates.

Q: Many people in the United States know Tunisia as the only country to successfully democratize after the Arab Spring. Are you optimistic for Tunisia’s future as a democracy? What challenges do you think Tunisia still faces to thrive as a democracy?

A: I am very optimistic for Tunisia's future as a democracy because there are many Tunisians devoted to this cause. Corruption and terrorism, however, threaten Tunisia’s future as a democracy. Corruption in all forms is a huge threat not only to democracy but also our economic and social prosperity. Our military forces have done a lot to control the threat of terrorism, but since terrorist attacks in the past were often in retaliation to elections or laws, the threat can slow political progress.

Q: In your opinion, what are Tunisia’s greatest strengths as a country?

A: I believe that Tunisia’s greatest strength is its youth. Tunisians under 30 years old account for more than 60% of all citizens. They are full of energy and potential. They are greatly equipped to make Tunisia a more advanced country. Added to that, Tunisia has an advantageous geographical location, rich history, fertile land, and brainpower. If employed properly, these strengths have the power to advance Tunisia.

Q: As a medical student, can you speak a little about Tunisia’s healthcare system? What are one or two reforms you would like to see?

A: The good thing about the healthcare system in Tunisia is that it's public and almost free for all citizens. However, many reforms are needed. The quality of medical care is insufficient due to the Ministry of Health’s limited budget. Doctors and medical staff work in poor conditions and lack proper equipment. They are overburdened with patients which affects their quality of care. Medical students and residents are also fighting for reforms in the education system.

Q: Just for fun, what is your favorite Tunisian food?

My favorite Tunisian food is definitely mlewi. It is is a Tunisian bread. I think that mlewi with harissa and tuna is the manifestation of heaven in food form.

Thank you, Tasnime!

Fellows' Reflections: Tonia Bartlett

Confessions of a Reformed Skeptic

I think as humans, we’re very compelled by the idea of martyrdom. We love characters like Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins -- the ones willing to carry a great burden and responsibility for the good of all. Now I don’t always mean martyrdom in the fullest, most complete sense of the word -- we generally aren’t keen on seeing our heroes fall, so don’t misunderstand me. But we are all, in our core, drawn to the idea of an individual willing to make sacrifices for the preservation of ideals like goodness and justice. I mean it’s why Avengers Infinity War just broke so many box office records, right? 

Probably, like you, I have many family members and dear friends who chose teaching as a career path. And probably, like you, I didn’t really get it. I felt like teachers were and are the forgotten martyrs of American culture. Sure, we have a teacher appreciation week and every once in awhile I wrote a thank you note growing up. But really it seemed like somewhere along the way, the educator’s impossible task -- to teach, mentor, coach, parent, model, and everything else in between -- had become normalized as reasonable for what is often an underpaid and under-resourced position. I looked at my friends and family who became teachers and sort of shook my head, impressed by their nobility, but very skeptical of their decision. 

And then I entered the classroom. 

And this is where I want to shake my head at myself. After all those years of swearing to myself I would never be a teacher! Here I am, actually enjoying the job. Sigh.

Moving to Egypt has been full of unexpected discoveries. Of course in many ways, moving abroad, we come expecting the unexpected. But learning to love education this year has been among my biggest surprises. If I had never entered the classroom on this fellowship year, I might never have discovered the satisfaction I find in a fast-paced and reactive day-to-day work environment. I might never have fully realized how much I enjoy being surrounded by kids on a daily basis. And I definitely never would have opened up to teaching as a reasonable and fulfilling career path. 

I never wanted to be a martyr for the classroom, and I still don’t want to be. The American and many international education systems need reform, and I hope my generation will pick up that torch. But in the meantime, reflecting on this year, I’m genuinely and joyfully surprised by the direction I’ve found looking toward a future in education. And if that makes you want to shake your head and sigh . . . I get it. 

But then again, maybe you should give the classroom a chance. 

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Here’s a video of one of the many moments I’ve loved this year with my students, from our STEAM Week and Future City projects. Check it out! 

Fellows' Reflections: Laura Humes

Compared to where I was just one year ago, I’ve come to realize that my life these days is reflected in a near perfect mirror image across the other side of the Mediterranean.

A year ago, in Thessaloniki, Greece, I would wake up each morning to the smell of the sea and wander sleepily down apartment-lined streets to catch a city bus to the outskirts of the city. I would disembark at an abandoned cement factory, the inside converted into a refuge for families displaced from Syria and Iraq. I would enter the building, ascend the stairs to a room overlooking the former factory floor, and greet a room full of youth who were part of the first ever education program in the camp. For some, it was their very first experience in a classroom, even a makeshift one. For me, it was my first experience as a teacher.

The beginning of this month marked the start of my second term as a class teacher at Elm International School in Alexandria, Egypt. These days, I wake up each morning to the smell of a different sea. I wander a short ways down a tree-lined street to reach the gates of a historic villa converted into a school. Once inside, I walk up the stairs to a sunlit classroom, its green-shuttered windows looking out onto a canopy of fluttering leaves.

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Reflecting on where I was a year ago has allowed me to trace an unexpected connectedness within my own life, as I look across my journey in international education. I’ve seen that learning can occur in the least expected places, from former factories to converted villas. Along the way, I’ve picked up skills, practices, and frameworks that I can adapt to any new environment.

Teaching is the first job I’ve had that can be described in a single word. This role has enabled me to tap into a more creative side of myself, to extend my patience beyond what I imagined myself capable of, to appreciate spontaneity and allow myself to be surprised, to expand my capacity to care, to be dynamic. Thinking of the ways that I’ve already grown within the space of a single year, I feel more focused, capable, and excited about my path forward.

My experience in Greece taught me that learners with different needs, aspirations, and life experiences—those who don’t look like traditional students—are typically relegated to realms of the education system that offer limited pathways forward. My experience in Egypt has shown me that a student-centered model can effectively provide meaningful pathways to advance education, while also valuing each learners’ unique next steps.

One year ago, I was working against severe resource constraints, policy barriers, and lack of political will to design meaningful learning opportunities for displaced youth. Now, I teach at an international school that draws learners from a wide variety of backgrounds and life experiences. While the education model I’m currently working with isn’t without its own unique challenges, teaching at Elm International School has certainly expanded my perspective. It has allowed me to see that challenges can push educators to think more creatively about what education means in the most fundamental sense.

My journey over the past year has reaffirmed my commitment to expand the opportunities students can have, regardless of their circumstances. For a generation of youth eager to learn, grow, and make change for a better world, this could be my greatest impact.