Alumnae Spotlight: Sofia Alpizar, Student and Intern at USAID
Sofia Alpizar left her home in Amman and called a taxi cab to take her class one morning during her first weeks abroad. She had learned the hard way that when navigating a foreign city one can become lost, more than once. Arabic was one of the reasons why she decided to study in Jordan, but she didn’t expect how vulnerable the language barrier would make her feel. This ride was different. She climbed into the taxi with a friendly, gregarious driver who immediately started asking her about herself. Where was she from? Why is she here? And, after a few minutes of back and forth, he started asking about her spiritual beliefs. As she told him that she was a Christian, he grew more excited, proclaiming his admiration of Jesus and Mary, pointing out his faith, Islam, and Christianity are more connected than one might think. Sofia was moved and overwhelmed by this small example of religious tolerance. Her taxi cab ride that day was the first of many instances of spiritual acceptance in a region so often characterized by war and conflict.
From what she’s studying in the classroom to what she’s experiencing just by interacting with those around her, Sofia’s semester abroad in Amman, Jordan is nothing short of a life altering experience. The George Washington University Junior, and Holy Child Class of 2016 alumna, is tackling global issues to which very few might ever dream of being exposed. Through her studies and this cultural experience, Sofia says she hopes to gain greater understanding of the Middle Eastern North African (MENA) region that is so often misunderstood.
Sofia chose to study in Jordan to fulfill her Middle Eastern studies requirements for her International Affairs major. She also hopes to become fluent in Arabic, which is her minor. She’s in Amman with the Council of International Educational Exchange Middle Eastern studies program, which includes an extensive Arabic course, community service, cultural immersion and internship opportunities. Through her internship with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) TAKAMOL project, which focuses on gender equity and female empowerment in Jordan, Sofia is part of the engagement process with the community and policymakers to build positive interactions between men and women.
Sofia is also a Global Identities Scholarship recipient, given to students with diverse backgrounds and identities traveling abroad. She’s using this opportunity to research immigration in Jordan, which accepts a large number of immigrants and refugees fleeing conflict zones every year. Humanitarian aid work is personal to Sofia as she is a Costa Rican immigrant herself. She has already spent the last three years working with immigrants at the U.S. border and within the DC government with plans to continue that work when she returns home.
“As an immigrant in the U.S., I have experienced the difficulties that come with inclusion and identity in a different society, and, due to this, I hope to understand and learn from immigrants and refugees and their journeys towards finding their place in Jordan,” says Sofia.
While her studies and research are why Sofia is abroad this semester, perhaps her personal interactions with Jordanians are leaving the strongest impact on her. She has found the country to be a keystone for peace and religious tolerance, witnessing it firsthand many times. Jordan, a primarily Muslim country, represents multiple religions, including Christianity.
Sofia says, “Many mistakenly believe that [Islam and Christianity] cannot live in peace in an Arab country and immediately assume that the existence of the two will result in violence. However, Jordan has proven itself to be a peaceful country filled with acceptance and respect.”
Sofia says she has witnessed nothing but spiritual acceptance in her time there. Including her interaction with the taxi cab driver, she also has a Muslim Jordanian friend who expresses the same feelings, explaining how religious tolerance is an emblem of their society.
“Jordanians’ religious tolerance and hospitable natures,” she says, “have moved me and made me feel at home.”
This is just the start of Sofia’s humanitarian and refugee work. She has plans for the future that include working for a law firm or non-governmental organization and then going to law school herself. She says her career goal is to help the most vulnerable populations, providing them with an equal opportunity for health and happiness. Before any of that can happen, however, Sofia will return home to Washington, DC in May, ready to share all she’s learned in Jordan with the rest of the world.
Read more about Sofia’s experience studying abroad and at Holy Child below:
Tell us more about your internship with the USAID TAKAMOL project. What are your roles and responsibilities?
“My job is to assist with gender audits and trainings of Jordan’s public sector. To perform these audits, TAKAMOL utilizes focus groups, surveys, interviews, trainings and research teams to collect accurate, nationally representative data on gender relations in the public sector. I assist with the formation of the trainings, help compile the newly acquired data, and draft the final reports. Additional to my interests in humanitarian aid, I am also passionate about gender equality and women’s empowerment. Working with the TAKAMOL Project here in Jordan, is providing me with a new perspective on women’s suffrage and with the experience I need to continue this work in the future.
What is a challenge you’ve faced while studying abroad?
“Jordan is a friendly and welcoming nation where its people’s hospitality is well known all over the world and these qualities make the country fairly easy to live in. I definitely felt anxiety about the move at first, but the transition turned out to be smooth and easy. However, I experienced some challenges and the most overwhelming was the language barrier. While GW prepared me well for my time here, my Arabic was not as strong as I had thought. The barrier affected every single aspect of my life; including transportation, agency, ordering food, work, and asking for directions. For the first few weeks, I got lost repeatedly, got overcharged for everything, bought the wrong food or products, misunderstood instructions, and struggled to communicate with my host family and coworkers. Because of this, I became highly insecure of my independence and abilities. After a couple of weeks, however, I became more comfortable with the language and learned that Jordanians were always willing to help me find my way around and solve any trouble I had gotten myself into. I took this barrier and made it the incentive I needed to get out of my comfort zone and that is when I truly started learning the language.”
What do you hope to gain from your study abroad experience that you hope to share with others when you return home?
“Our Western society has and continues to portray the MENA region and its people with derogatory stereotypes and false information that instigate fear, resentment, and dislike. These negative portrayals sparked my desire to learn more about the region and correct all the flawed information I was taught in the past. During my time in Jordan, I am actively and respectfully asking questions, listening, and learning about these new cultures and lifestyles. I have only been here for two months and I can already say this region has taken a piece of my heart due to its rich history, passionate people, faithful followers of all religions, delicious foods, beautiful landscapes, and admirable cultures. I hope to return to the U.S. with a new and greater understanding of this part of the world and to share it with everyone around me. Being in Jordan has been a true blessing for me and I hope to take advantage of all opportunities that come with being here in order to grow academically, personally, and culturally.”
Do you have a favorite memory or class from Holy Child?
“One of my favorite memories from Holy Child is from my time preparing for and participating in our chapter of the Model Organization of American States. I joined the chapter as a sophomore, and it was during this time that I started developing my interests in international affairs. MOAS helped me develop debate and teamwork skills and sparked my curiosity for current events. My favorite classes were all of my history classes with Mrs. Lowry, Mr. Lewin, and Mrs. Roberts. For as long as I can remember, history has been my favorite subject and these teachers had a brilliant take on the topic, pushed us to think outside the box, to consider different points of view, and taught us the importance of learning from the past to create a better future.”
What is your advice for a Holy Child student who is interested in pursuing a study abroad experience like yours?
“It is important to always keep an open mind, to keep asking questions, and to listen to all points of view. Don’t be afraid to explore places and cultures that are different from yours. Don’t let other people’s opinions impact the way you look at the world and the societies within it; experience them yourself. Educate yourself on things you don’t understand before you make any judgments; one source is not enough. Travel and explore the world as much as you can (don’t go to resorts, get out of your comfort zone and get to know the countries for what they really are). Learn as many languages as you can; the more you learn, the more cultured you become and many doors will open for you culturally, professionally, and socially. Neither your culture nor your country are better, we’re different in every way and each one of us deserves equal respect. There’s a whole world outside of the United States that’s waiting for you to explore and learn from it; don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and do it.”
Spotlight written by Liz Palka Minukas '04
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