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Heritage Month: Arab Americans as Educators

posted on: Apr 20, 2016

BY: Patrick Nahhas/Contributing Writer

Nothing is valued more highly in Arab culture than education, which is regarded as the cornerstone to success in life. There are many Arab proverbs that signifies the seriousness of getting education, one of them translates to:  Seek education everywhere on the planet even if it was in China (one of the farthest countries for Arabs).

Countless Arab Americans were born from the Arab men and women who left their homelands and livelihoods behind in search of better education. This desire to learn comes naturally to members of the Arab American community, motivating the community to help others learn, as well. There are countless influential Arab American educators shaping curriculum and the way all Americans learn.

One prominent educator is Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian-born American who immigrated to the U.S. for school. After he got his B.S., Masters, and PhD in the U.S., he decided to give back to those who taught him here. Zewail is the Linus Pauling Chair Professor of Chemistry, a professor of Physics, and the director of Physical Biology center for Ultrafast Science and Technology at the California Institute of Technology. For his excellent research and practices, Zewail won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1999 for his work on femtochemistry, becoming the first Arab to win a Nobel Prize in a scientific field.

HHS Secretary Shalala and President Clinton

Another great educator is Donna Shalala, who started as a political science professor at Baruch College, and continued to do so until 1980 when she gained her first academic administration job as the president of Hunter College. In 1987 she became the Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, becoming the first woman to lead a Big Ten Conference school and the second to lead a major research university. For her considerable accomplishments, President Bill Clinton appointed her as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services from 1993-2001, becoming the longest-serving Secretary in this department.

Fawaz A. Gerges is another remarkable Arab American educator. After earning his PhD from Oxford, Gerges went on to teach at Oxford, Harvard, and Columbia. He also held the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation Chair in Middle Eastern Studies and International Affairs at Sarah Lawrence College. The accomplished Gerges, an expert on Middle Eastern politics, has been brought onto CNN, ABC, CBS, NPR, the BBC, and Al Jazeera to educate the public about situations occurring in the Arab world. Today, he teaches Middle East Politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Finally, the topic of education is nothing without a mention of Edward Said, the author and professor of literary studies who founded post-colonial studies in the U.S. Because of Said, Americans are better educated on the impacts of colonization, “othering,” identity, and Orientalism – a term he defines as the Western perception of the Arab World. Without Said, Americans would not have a more informed understanding of Arabs, nor would the Arab American identity be as strong as it is today.

As always, there are thousands of other extremely accomplished Arab American educators who have made considerable impacts on the lives of all Americans. As a people who value education, it’s only natural that there are several extremely notable Arab Americans who give back to their communities through the realm of knowledge. Undoubtedly, this is a field that Arab Americans will continue to grow in and change the way people are educated in America for years to come.

See all articles about National Arab American Heritage Month here.