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Christen Decker '07

Middle East studies concentrator heads to Jordan

Christen Decker '07 never would have guessed that the goat herder she met on a trip to Oman while studying abroad in Dubai last spring was a part-time law student. But thanks to her knowledge of Arabic, which she began studying as a sophomore at Brown, Decker was able to have a conversation with the young man.

"Experiences like this showed me what a powerful tool Arabic is for making connections with people," the Middle East studies concentrator said.

Decker has spent her time at Brown studying Middle Eastern culture as well as teaching middle school students through programs such as Summerbridge - which is designed to provide support for inner-city youths applying to competitive high schools. After graduation, she will draw from both experiences as a teacher at King's Academy in Madaba, Jordan, a new coeducational boarding school founded by King Abdullah II.

Scheduled to open this fall, King's Academy is modeled after Abdullah's high school alma mater, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. Decker will not be the only person affiliated with Brown at the school. Eric Widmer, a University faculty member from 1979 to 1994, will serve as the headmaster.

"I can't believe I get to combine teaching and my interest in the Middle East," Decker said. "It's like the dream job. I love connecting with people."

Decker's family is Lebanese on her father's side, so she had some early exposure to Middle Eastern and Arab culture while growing up in Portsmouth, N.H. But it was not until she came to Brown and began taking classes on the Koran that she realized how much this part of her heritage interested her.

Though raised Maronite Catholic - along with Islam, it is a common religion among people of Lebanese descent - Decker said she found reading the Koran in Arabic a "moving experience."

But even more than reading the language, Decker wanted a chance to converse with native Arabic speakers. During her junior year she applied and was selected to be a William Jefferson Clinton Scholar at the American University in Dubai. As one of a handful of students selected, Decker spent a semester in the United Arab Emirates studying economics and Arabic.

"It's an amazing place," Decker said of Dubai. "It's become a commercial hub of the (Persian) Gulf, and it's still growing."

Decker said the city offered her a very cosmopolitan experience, as local Emirates comprise only about 10 percent of the population.

"I really love the people I met there," Decker said, recalling friends she made from Saudi Arabia and Iran. She said she developed a very close relationship with her roommate, who was Iranian.

"Jogging and physical education was one of the ways I really connected with women in Dubai, mostly because they thought I was ridiculous for doing it," Decker said.

She will have another opportunity to share her enjoyment of athletics next year at King's Academy, where she was "ecstatic" to learn her responsibilities will include coaching girls in sports. Decker will also live in a dormitory with the female students while teaching classes in English, including philosophy of ethics and world religion.

Decker's friend Carey Turnquest '07 said Decker's supportive attitude will make her an effective teacher.

"I jokingly call her my life coach," Turnquest said. "I couldn't ask for a more loyal friend."

Decker said one of her main goals is to foster a positive atmosphere and community for her students - something she learned to value while a student at Phillips Exeter Academy.

"You should feel like you're being thrown into another family," she said of boarding school life.

Decker said she thinks her Lebanese background will make it easier for her to develop close connections with students at King's Academy.

"I've had the luxury of experiencing something of both cultures. Hopefully I can act as a bridge for some of these girls," Decker said.

"Teachers will function truly as mentors," said Associate Professor of Comparative Literature Meera Viswanathan, who will be taking a two-year leave of absence to design the curriculum for King's Academy. Viswanathan met Decker during the process of interviewing candidates for positions at the school.

"I was impressed by her enthusiasm and her training," Viswanathan said. "I look forward to learning from her as much as she will learn from the school."

Even though classes will be taught in English, Decker said she is glad the King's Academy curriculum focuses on Middle Eastern authors and thinkers, which will "instill the students with a sense of pride and identity."

"In an education there should be a strong sense of self," she said.

Turnquest said Decker, if anyone, would be able to encourage such self-confidence.

"Heads turn when she walks into the room," Turnquest said. "She has that sort of charisma about her."


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