Building Bridges

With her smile alone, a young refugee girl embraces her schooling in Azraq, taking advantage of the opportunity to learn and spend time with her Syrian friends.

“You are a subject, not an object… You don’t have to be Edna, you have to be you.”

Professor Rula B. Quawas’ voice rises as she finishes her point; her students nod and hum in agreement. She is a short, older woman with short brown hair and dark glasses. Her accent is a mix of Arabic and Irish.

Our Immerse team sits along the back wall of her classroom in Jordan University, taking down notes and nodding in agreement with what Professor Quawas is saying. The classroom is large and white with six rows of chairs. There are no personal touches, besides three stock images displaying destinations of clear blue water, white boats, and stone castles. The majority of Rula’s students sit in the front three rows, closest to her and the white board. All of her students except for one are women. The students are discussing their assigned reading, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, an American novel which Quawas uses to explore messages of self-empowerment and independence for her female students. She stands in the front of the room by the white board, pointing her fingers at her students and emphasizing certain points.

“We have to rebut, to contest, and to challenge. The roles prescribed by society… fundamental institutions that breed oppression… those we have to change.” As she says these words, several of Professor Quawas’ students nod and hum in accordance.

As a young female studying at a liberal university like Duke, I still found myself nodding and humming to what Rula is saying. Her words resonate in my ears, and I underline certain words like “wake up” and “fight” in my notebook. While her female students confront how this American novel relates to their Arab culture, I found myself in awe of how much I personally need to hear this message. Too many times, I take for granted the liberal education I have been given – an academic education that prides itself on its students’ achievements, but not necessarily on the people they are becoming. Rula’s course reminds me of the bridge that must we as students must build between these two points – our achievements and our personhood. We must develop these two aspects of ourselves, cohesively. Despite the pressures and “breeding” by Duke to become the highest achieving students, our success cannot take precedence over our development as human beings. At Duke, I recognize that I struggle to build this bridge and feel that I am sacrificing my personhood over my academic success. At the expense of getting good grades, I lose what I love as a person – time with friends, conversation, and company.

Rula explains, “The only bridge you build is to you and yourself.” She makes possible to her female students the idea that they can explore who they are beyond the roles of wives and mothers that have been prescribed by traditional Arab culture. This is a profound idea, and while Rula applies it to the context of her students’ lives, I recognize the need for similar bridges to be built at Duke. As a Duke student, I must build a bridge stretches from my academic goals to my personal goals, or in other words, my “heart goals.” I have to bring the two together in one frame. It is my responsibility, not the institution’s.

Rula shares with the class that she knows that several of them are wives and mothers. Recognizing these new social roles, several of them connect the novel to their personal lives. Commenting on their personal narratives, Rula uses the example of Edna, the main character in The Awakening, to encourage her female students to take time for themselves beyond their familial relationships. She ties the novel to the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Follow the beatings of your own heart.” I know that more Duke students, regardless of gender, could use her message and claim their efforts and energy. This does not mean they give up on the major or activities they want to pursue, but rather, they refuse to allow for these pursuits to consume them.

Duke students, myself included, need time to develop themselves as people as well as their resumes. We all need more Rula in our lives.

Isabella Arbalaez is a T’19 Undergraduate and a 2017 Immerse Participant.

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