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Student receives fellowship to enter foreign service

April 02, 2009

Few college students would volunteer to teach an online class at 6 a.m. once a week. But Amirah Ismail logs in at dawn every Wednesday to facilitate a web-conference for university students from around the world, trying to help Western and Arab-Muslim students understand and respect each other.

Last spring she and another student co-taught a free Arabic language course to ASU students as a program of the Arab Student Association, bringing in Arabic food, teaching basic conversation, watching music videos in Arabic. 

Ismail stands out at ASU as a leader who is anxious to share her culture and bridge the gap between the Western world and the Middle East. Now she has won a competitive award for graduate study in this area, the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Graduate Fellowship, providing about $80,000 for a master’s program and two internships. Only 20 students are chosen for the award each year.

She will use the award to enter a career in the Foreign Service of the U.S. State Department. Currently she’s a senior majoring in both global studies and justice studies, through the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Barrett, the Honors College.

Despite having a double major and minors in both Arabic Studies and Islamic Studies, Ismail has a 4.0 grade-point average. She’s also a violinist in the ASU Sinfonietta Orchestra. Her professors praise her talent, but above all, her dedication and passion for what she does.

“Amirah Ismail is an exceptional student, dedicated and hard working, with outstanding organizational and research skills,” says Souad T. Ali, head of Classics and Middle East Letters and Cultures. “I have seen many examples of her talent and have long been impressed by her diligence and work ethic.

“She is a highly qualified young scholar with great potential, motivation and ability. And as president of the Arab Students Association, she has done a remarkable job, advancing the organization and developing rapport and good relations with other student clubs.”

Born and raised in Mesa, Ismail was an active youth who was involved in speech and debate, choir, violin, piano, drama, soccer and dance. Of Egyptian descent, her parents encouraged her to learn about her heritage, while participating in the opportunities America offers.

Even before the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Ismail says she experienced sterotypes and misconceptions about the Arab-Muslim world. She found herself explaining Islam to her teachers and fellow students, and she decided she wanted to build bridges and understanding whenever she could.

In her sophomore year at ASU she studied abroad at the American University in Cairo, where she took a course from a professor who ignited her interest in international affairs and the Middle East.

“Getting to know Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the leading human rights activist of Egypt and the Arab world, was a defining experience for me,” she says. “His commitment and passion for democracy and human rights were truly inspiring. He motivated me to pursue my interests, and to never give up standing for what is right. He invited me to intern as a research analyst at his institute in Cairo the following summer.”

What followed was an amazing series of experiences that have given her a maturity and perspective far beyond most 21-year-olds.

She worked at the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo the summer of 2007, conducting research and translating articles from Arabic to English. That fall she began writing about community events for the Arab Voice and Muslim Voice newspapers in Phoenix. She returned to Cairo in the summer of 2008 as a consular assistant at the U.S. Embassy.

For over a year she has interned as a facilitator for Soliya, an organization that connects university students from the West and Arab-Muslim worlds in online dialogues to promote cross-cultural friendships and understanding. In February she recorded a presentation for the U.S.- Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar.

Ismail hopes to earn a master’s in Middle East studies and international affairs from either Georgetown, George Washington University, AmericanUniversity in Washington, D.C. or the American University in Cairo. The Rangel fellowship will provide funding for two years of study, plus an internship working for a member of Congress in Washington and another internship in a U.S. Embassy overseas. 

“I hope to serve the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer in the Middle East, where I can contribute my knowledge and expertise,” says Ismail. “My ultimate career goal is to increase mutual understanding and relationships between the U.S. and the Arab world. I’d like to help sponsor peace and prosperity in the region, as well as to work towards a global common good.”