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Graduating senior dedicated to worldwide gender equality wins Fulbright

Samah Asfour will teach English in Jordan as part of her Fulbright English teaching assistantship. Photo: Douglas Levere

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published June 1, 2015

“The Fulbright will give me the opportunity to live in another country and understand some of the struggles women face, but also, it will allow me to break down the stereotypes Americans have of the Middle East.”
Samah Asfour, recipient
Fulbright English teaching assistantship

When UB Fulbright winner Samah A. Asfour was a junior studying in the Aix-en-Provence of France, she didn’t fully understand discrimination toward the Arab community until she met her host mother.

“Oh, look,” the woman said to her grandson after first meeting Asfour. “Last semester we had someone with blond hair and blue eyes. And now we have someone who is all brown.”

This story of Asfour’s initial encounter — the first of numerous “unconsciously prejudiced comments,” as Asfour remembers, by the woman whose house she would live in for four months — has a happier ending. Both are now close after Asfour became a kind of unofficial cultural ambassador to her host, a French woman born in Algeria.

“I made a promise to myself: I was determined to change her attitude and preconceived notions,” says Asfour. “I wanted to show her that the stereotypes were not true. I wanted to show her as an Arab and Muslim woman, I am free. I’m not oppressed, contrary to her beliefs and what the media portrays. I am an educated, free-spirited Arab woman who has a family that supports my ambitions, dreams and goals.”

For Samah Asfour, cultivating that ability to empower women is what her Fulbright award is all about. It’s UB’s third Fulbright Award this year and fourth national scholarship honor, including the prestigious Boren Scholarship. And Asfour is just the latest outstanding UB student to translate a passion into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a universally acknowledged elite academic honor.

“When I first met Samah, you could tell she was passionate about working to empower women, especially issues of women in developing nations and in the Middle East,” says Elizabeth Colucci, coordinator of fellowships and scholarships for UB.  

“As a woman with ties to the Middle East, Samah could bring her considerable skills, passions and interests to teaching English to the Fulbright English teaching assistantship. She breaks down the barriers and stereotypes of who is an American and will be an outstanding ambassador of American culture to Jordan.” She is passionate about her work.”

After working with Asfour on her Truman Scholarship application last year, Colucci suggested she apply for a Fulbright English teaching assistantship to Jordan.

“The culmination of her studies, study abroad, language study and work with refugee communities in Buffalo are being rewarded and recognized by her Fulbright,” says Colucci.

A graduate of Kenmore East High School, Asfour’s family lives in Tonawanda. She was born in the U.S., the second-oldest among six children, but her parents raised her with a keen awareness and pride in her Palestinian heritage. Her parents, Fayzeh and Anwar Asfour — growing up “with the occupation worsening in their homeland,” she says — never had the opportunity to finish their education. There were not enough schools to go around, and her parents were not among the more fortunate: Only those with special permits could move enough to attend these schools.

“Occupation does terrible things to a society,” Asfour says. “It doesn’t allow women to go to school because there isn’t enough money or the women need to stay at home and help with the family.

“My parents made it their goal to move to the United States to guarantee an education for their children.”

Since moving to America, Asfour’s parents have made two values paramount: the liberating and transforming power of education, and an appreciation and determination to connect their children with their Palestinian heritage.

“My parents’ determination to expose us to our Middle Eastern heritage and higher education has instilled me with a multifaceted identity,” she says.

Asfour’s Fulbright, which runs from this August to the following July, is an ETA, or English teaching assistantship. She will teach English in Jordan for 20 hours a week at a place to be determined. She also will start a community outreach project teaching students the global need for recycling and products suitable for daily recycling. Asfour then will show students how to replicate the project in their homes, which hopefully will lead to a community campaign to increase recycling.

“I wanted to do something different,” Asfour says. “I wanted my application to stand out, to have something the committee hadn’t seen before.”

All the while, she will be gathering expertise and experience on reaching women still living oppressed and second-class lives in the 21st century. Her ambition is to work with the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. Improving her already fluent Arabic is one goal. But immersing herself in the Middle Eastern culture will give her the chance to understand and break down the cultural stereotypes so many women still work through every day.

“The Fulbright will give me the opportunity to live in another country and understand some of the struggles women face, but also, it will allow me to break down the stereotypes Americans have of the Middle East,” Asfour explains. “With this, I can help empower women in the areas that they need.

“Having that cultural understanding is a crucial first step.”

Asfour graduated from UB this May with a dual major in political science and global gender studies. She also received UB’s Student Affairs Senior Leadership Award, a distinction given to a senior student from the graduating class who demonstrates leadership skills through multiple activities on campus. She was chosen for the award by Dennis Black, vice president for university life and services.

“I want people to know that I make mistakes, too,” she says. “I don’t always get things on the first try. I’ve had rejections and failures, but that’s all a part of learning and growing. It’s a way to perfect your areas of weakness.

“I want people to know that I was never handed anything in life. It’s a slightly different life being a daughter of immigrants. I had to work for what I wanted. I was determined to succeed, and success to me is education. I want others to know that my humble background is what brought me to the place where I am. Anyone in a tough situation must know that they can achieve their goals as well, as long as they have the passion and motivation to do so.”

Asfour also is co-founder and president of the UB chapter of Girl Effect, a nationwide organization that promotes adolescent female education in Third World countries in hopes of eliminating poverty. The research is clear and conclusive, Asfour says.

“Educating girls ensures strides toward prosperity,” she wrote in her Fulbright application. “Educated mothers not only educate their sons, but their daughters as well, thus leading to a new cycle of prosperity that will be bequeathed from generation to generation.”

And given her focus on gender studies, the fact that all UB’s Fulbright winners — who include Abigail LaPlaca and Anna Porter — and Boren Scholarship winner Casey Rothberg are all female is not lost on Asfour.

“Oh, I’ve noticed,” says Asfour. “I study gender issues. I recognize things like that. It’s an affirmation that women are capable of holding such positions. These are opportunities that will help advance our career goals.”

After her Fulbright, Asfour has plans to attend Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, where she will continue to concentrate her efforts on women and gender through a master’s degree in contemporary Arab studies.