In the year 1970, Naglaa Gaafar was born in Alexandria, Egypt. After devoting her early years to family and receiving her Bachelor’s Degree in English Language and Literature, as well as a Master’s Degree in Applied Linguistics from Alexandria University, Naglaa reached a pivotal point in her life. A yearning for something more and an undeniable sense of courage led Naglaa to travel 5,324 miles across the Atlantic to Dartmouth, Massachusetts, at the age of 28.
“I think there comes a point…when you feel that whatever you’re looking for does not exist where you are, and you have to take a risk and explore somewhere else. And I took a very big one.”
Naglaa’s journey began with an opportunity and desire to further her education. She received a scholarship for her master’s degree and attained a teaching assistantship for the professional writing program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Her life progressed rapidly, as she married her husband and moved to Rhode Island six months after her arrival.
A continuous sense of feeling welcomed in Rhode Island and interacting with good natured people paved the path that transformed Naglaa from an Egyptian woman into an Egyptian American woman. Encouraging professors, supportive in-laws, and community oriented neighbors pushed Naglaa and her husband along as they built their life together. The couple took root in a small apartment, with one car, while both husband and wife worked multiple jobs and attended school. About a year and a half into their marriage their responsibilities grew with the addition of a third family member, their daughter. Life was hectic and busy, but Naglaa loved everything about it.
Naglaa has been working in higher education for 21 years, beginning when she still lived in Alexandria, Egypt. Her first full time job in the United States was at Cornell University. She worked her way through multiple positions, from faculty to administration. Currently she works at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) as the Director of the Center for Excellence and College Readiness. Naglaa’s passion for teaching, however, remains the same. She has always kept one leg in teaching and describes its importance in this way: “Now I teach part time, it’s my passion.” While teaching does serve some self-interest, Naglaa is also doing some systematic bridge building between administrators and professors, two groups that sometimes struggle to understand each other.
The troubles caused by misunderstanding are not unique to Naglaa’s chosen profession in education. She frequently witnesses a misinterpretation of immigrants and their intentions by US-born citizens. Naglaa wants immigrants to be viewed as people who bring their rich cultures and add to what already exists in America, not take away from it.
“I want to contribute. We are not here to take anything away from anybody. We are here because we took a chance on ourselves. We put life in a bag and said goodbye to every dear person to our hearts. It was gut ripping, but we said we were going to plant roots here.”
Naglaa has lived in the United States for 16 years, yet she has remained connected to her Egyptian family and Egyptian roots. She travels to Egypt once a year, however, the sense of coming home isn’t felt on the journey there; it is felt on the journey back. Naglaa is who she is because of the experiences she has had as an immigrant living in the United States. She identifies this country, the place where she established her own family, as home and finds value in the individualistic culture of the United States.
“What I would say about my experience here is, what happened to me coming through my journey is I was able to shed a skin that was given to me and find my own spirit…If you’re here to know more about yourself, this is the perfect environment because you are on your own.”
Naglaa’s confidence, charisma, and enthusiasm for life are contagious. These qualities are evident through her story and the way in which she encourages growth in students at the Community College of Rhode Island:
“Everywhere you go there will be people who think that they are better and people who are going to think that you are less, and that doesn’t matter. It only matters what you think of yourself. If you treat yourself with respect, and as an equal, the world tends to respond to that.”
Written and compiled by Colleen Andersen and Claire O’Connor