Claire Cooper ’11 Shapes a Career
When Brandeis senior Claire Cooper came here from a small town in upstate New York, she thought she might study abroad, if she had the chance. She thought that she would go to Argentina, or somewhere else and practice her Spanish.
Then, she took an introductory course on Islam and spent ten days in Istanbul, Turkey as part of the Brandeis-Al-Quds University Partnership, and her education, and her life, took a sharp turn to the Middle East.
Global Brandeis Profiles: Claire Cooper ’11
Major: Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies
Global Experience: Brandeis University – Al-Quds University Partnership exchanges in Istanbul and Jerusalem, study abroad semester in Rabat, Morocco; State Department Critical Languages Scholarship Program in Tunis, Tunisia
“Being involved in the Al-Quds Partnership was the best experience of college,” she said.
“And when the Al-Quds students [later] came to Brandeis, my whole perception of Brandeis changed, too. All of a sudden my friends were interacting and learning from a different set of people with really different views.”
The Al-Quds Partnership experience involved not only a ten-day seminar in Istanbul – where students from Brandeis and Al-Quds University studied classics of philosophy and literature together – but also a follow-up trip to the Al-Quds campus itself, located in East Jerusalem, at the edges of the Separation Wall. There, Claire visited Al-Quds classes and met with students and professors, and visited Jericho and Bethlehem.
She also hosted her Al-Quds student peers at Brandeis for a week-long visit last November, and they stay in regular contact.
Since then, Claire has continued to study Islam and Arabic culture with two extended stays in North Africa. Last spring, she spent a semester studying migration and transnational identity in Rabat, Morocco. Following that, she was selected for the competitive State Department Critical Languages Program, based for the summer in Tunis, Tunisia.
The Tunisia program was transformational and intensive, said Claire. Language study was an all-day-long affair, where about 30 students from across the U.S. were paired with former Fulbright scholars from Tunisia. But the cultural experiences were particularly memorable – camel-riding, visits to traditional Berber cave homes, and spiritual journeys. (See a video (1:03) of Claire describing language learning in Tunisia).
“One day we attended a Sufi music festival at the old Amphitheater at Carthage, and to be in this complex with the weight of all that has happened there — mixed in with this moving music blaring around us — was amazing.”
The mixture of old and new, and of different cultural forms, defines Arabic culture and modern Islam for Claire. She is continually astounded by the diversity of opinion, thought, and cultural life in the Middle East and North Africa, something that she feels does not get emphasized enough by American media. It’s the reason that she keeps going back. And it’s the reason she thinks that today’s college students are genuinely interested in the Middle East and Islam, even against the rising tide of anti-Islamic public opinion in the U.S.
“The more I look for answers, the more questions I have…for instance, people in Morocco don’t think the same way as in Tunisia, or even right next door in Algeria. They don’t really consider themselves African, nor are they Middle Eastern. That creates a whole set of issues in how we understand them and they understand themselves,” she said. (See a video (0:41) of Claire’s host family experience in Morocco).
Her travels and study have allowed her to learn about different cultural ways of doing things, as well as how to stand up for causes she believes in. It was that combination of approaches – cultural understanding matched with critical thinking — that she learned from the Al-Quds Partnership.
“What united us [the Brandeis and Al-Quds students] together was that we’re in all in college, we’re pursuing this education. You couldn’t do what we did with non-students. We’re allowed to ask questions and challenge the status quo. That’s a unique moment in your life,” she said.
“I thought that I would be going to these places and just appreciating their culture, and I did. But I was also faced with evaluating issues — such as human rights and gender — in a new framework.”
Claire’s study of migration and undocumented persons in Morocco, in fact, exemplifies the complex questions facing all of us in the twenty-first century. There are no easy answers, especially in a place like Morocco where history, current events, and economic development collide.
Her experiences led her to want to work on migration and immigration for a career, and she has worked with Iraqi refugees to the U.S. in Albany during summers away from Brandeis. She hopes to continue to work with this population, given the immense needs they face as the Iraq War concludes. “Many of these people are doctors, scholars. They are highly educated, but they can’t get jobs here,” she said.
In the mean time, she is applying to do a Fulbright year after Brandeis, to teach English in Bahrain.
But it all started with a class, and a trip to the crossroads of East and West. “I never imagined I’d be doing all this before I came here,” she said.