“Communicating culture is a large part of language teaching,” says Lama Nassif (MATESOL ’07), who is the newest member of the Arabic Department faculty at Middlebury. When we spoke with her in the first week of September, she was eagerly preparing for classes and excited about meeting her new students. Lama came to the Monterey Institute from Syria on a Fulbright scholarship, graduating from the TESOL program in 2007 and staying as the first full-time Arabic professor at MIIS. GSTILE Dean Reneé Jourdanais credits Lama with “getting our Arabic program off the ground.”
After laying the groundwork for the growing Arabic department at MIIS, Lama returned home to Syria for two years as per the terms of her Fulbright scholarship. Back at home she taught English at the university level, sharing with her students the U.S. culture she had come to appreciate greatly. Lama commends the Fulbright program for “building bridges of cultural understanding.” Before she was offered the scholarship her vision had been to continue her studies in England, and her understanding of the United States was limited.
“Fulbright changed my life,” she shares, adding that when it was time to pursue her doctorate degree, there was only one country on the list. Lama completed her PhD from the University of Texas in Austin earlier this year. The emphasis on creativity and critical thinking in the U.S. education system has served her well, and several times during our conversation she emphasized her appreciation for the great academic and personal growth she has experienced in America.
Working to foster the same kind of growth for her students today, Lama is helping students build a foundation through skills and strategies that encourage them to be sensitive to how languages interact with context and culture. In recent years, many students have asked her about the situation in her homeland of Syria. “They want to learn about and hear an individual’s perspective,” she says, adding that she shares with them what she knows and hears from her family in Damascus, with whom she communicates frequently.
A member of the faculty when MIIS began its affiliation with Middlebury, she says she views the connection as an added bonus to her new appointment. She had long been aware of Middlebury’s reputation and in 2012 taught at the summer Language Schools. “I know Middlebury is a place where I can contribute to their mission of contributing to the understanding and appreciation of international cultures through language learning.”
Lama is looking forward to working with the highly motivated students at Middlebury. “I am fortunate to have always had great students,” she says—and while we have no reason to doubt her, we can’t help but wonder if that has less to do with fortune than with the quality of her instruction.