A Chat with Maria Arruda
CELOP’s New Managing Director Shares Experiences Living in Egypt, Importance of Fostering Cross Cultural Understanding
Maria Arruda has fascinating professional and personal experiences on which to draw as she takes the helm as the new Managing Director for BU’s Center for English Language & Orientation Programs (CELOP). Arruda’s professional path has taken her from Boston to Ghana, West Africa, then back to the U.S. and, most recently, to the Middle East. While living in Egypt as an expat, Arruda experienced the dramatic social, political, and cultural changes of the Arab Spring and Egyptian Revolution firsthand.
Her interests in international education, Islam, and the Middle East brought her to the intersection of some profound moments both personally and professionally while living in Egypt. Arruda’s desire to develop a deeper understanding of different cultures has fueled her in more ways than one, and she continues to be a strong advocate for exchange programs and other opportunities where cross-cultural interaction and learning can take place.
Arruda graduated from Emerson College, earned a Master of Science in Education with a focus on TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) at Long Island University, served as Director of the English Language Resource Center at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, and most recently, as the Assistant Country Director for Programs at AMIDEAST Egypt. We recently sat down with Arruda to discuss her path to international education, the importance of developing cross-cultural understanding, and what students should do if they’re interested in an international career, among other things.
You have a very interesting background. Can you share a little about it, please?
Arruda: Sure. I grew up in Fairhaven, Massachusetts and studied film at Emerson College as an undergraduate. While at Emerson, I worked on and off in the Boston and Los Angeles film industries in casting and production. Once I completed my studies at Emerson, I moved to Ghana to help start a film school for Ghanaian youth. I lived and worked there for a brief period and then decided to shift gears altogether and pursue a different career path. About two years after I left Ghana, I pursued a master’s degree at Georgetown University in the field of Islam and Muslim-Christian relations.
What interested you in this field of study after working in the film industry?
I was curious about the root causes of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and wanted to understand why this happened and to do my part in possibly helping to address areas of misunderstanding around Islam. After about a year into this program, I found this degree to be more theoretical than I preferred and decided to move into an area that was a bit more practical in nature – teaching. I then applied and was accepted to teach English in New York through the New York City Teaching Fellows program.
Where did the NYC Teaching Fellows Program end up taking you?
After teaching English to immigrant high school students for five years as a Fellow, I started thinking again about working abroad. Because I was interested in the Muslim world, I decided to look for opportunities in the Middle East and North Africa region. I had heard about a program through the State Department called the English Language Fellows Program, so I decided to apply and was accepted. As an English Language Fellow, I was assigned to work with the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on a project at Al-Azhar University where I would teach English to junior faculty from the faculties of Islamic and Arabic studies and provide teacher training to selected graduates from the Faculty of Language and Translation. I was thrilled to be working at Al-Azhar University, which is well known in Sunni Islam and is one of the oldest universities in the world.
What was your professional path at Al-Azhar University and what was it like living in Egypt during the Arab Spring?
After two years as an English Language Fellow, I was promoted to Director of the English Language Resource Center at Al-Azhar University, which was funded by the US Embassy in Cairo and administered by Amideast. The center began as a joint initiative between the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and Al-Azhar University to increase the English proficiency levels of junior faculty members and improve cross-cultural understanding between Americans and Egyptians.
I arrived in Egypt in September 2011 following the inception of the Arab Spring and the Egyptian Revolution. During that time, the country went through a great number of changes. I experienced the protests, which took place after Friday prayer in Tahrir Square, and witnessed the first democratic presidential election and the military-led coup of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi.
Being able to experience the Egyptian Revolution firsthand was very exciting. Egyptians were finally able to express their opinions openly about political issues for the first time in a long time. It made me think that there’s a lot we take for granted here in the United States in terms of our rights, particularly to free speech.
What stays with you the most from your time spent living in Egypt and all that you experienced?
I think one of my biggest takeaways from the Egyptian Revolution was that it’s not easy establishing a democracy in a country like Egypt, which had been under military rule for so long. Democracy isn’t just about having the right to vote. It’s also about having the right systems in place and for people to be given certain rights that are then protected by the law.
Another thing that struck me is the respect for faith in Egypt. I think my experience at Al-Azhar University in particular had a profound impact on my decision to return to my own faith tradition, Christianity.
What are some things people can do if they want to improve their understanding of different cultures?
Find opportunities to engage with people from other backgrounds and cultures, wherever that may be… whether it’s within your own neighborhood, school or place of work. Try to reach out to people from other backgrounds and cultures and get to know them on an individual level.
I believe very strongly that the way in which we change our minds about other people, particularly from other cultures, is through relationships – it’s through getting to know others and being open to learning more about them. I think this is why I continue to love my field of international education. I think it’s so important for students to be able to have the chance to engage with other cultures.
What I love about CELOP is that our students come from all over the world and get to meet and interact with other international students and Americans. I love that my role is integral in creating opportunities for engagement.
You have such a worldly background and perspective. What advice do you have for BU students who may be interested in working internationally upon graduation?
Good question. I would say the first step is to identify where in the world you would like to work and then research the companies, agencies, or organizations that you would like to work for there. You may want to consider entry-level positions, internships or volunteer opportunities – basically, anything you can do to get a foot in the door and then prove yourself as a valuable team member while developing your professional network. To gain international experience, you could also consider volunteering with an international organization like the Peace Corps or pursuing an English teaching certificate, which will open the door to paid international teaching opportunities. And while you’re waiting for your international dream job to open up, use the time to learn a new language and let friends and family know about the work you’d like to do and where. You never know who they might know and what that could lead to!