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Arabic Teacher Learns About Texas Culture Through Program

May 20, 2011
SHSU Media Contact: Tara Lestarjette

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Rafik Slama spent his childhood watching gun-slinging cowboy movies in his Tunisian home.

“I loved watching John Wayne movies growing up, but the movies that I watched were (dubbed) in French because we were colonized by France,” Slama said. “They were my favorite type of movie.”

That is why when he decided to participate in the Fulbright International Educational Exchange Program, his choice of location was clear.

“When the Fulbright Program asked me my interests and location, I thought about horseback riding in Texas,” he said. “So I came to Sam Houston.”

Slama was welcomed by the SHSU foreign languages department last fall and has spent the past year teaching students his native language, Arabic, while attending classes to further his education.

Slama grew up in Tunisia, attending school at Makthar in the Siliana Governorate, a modern farming town. In the 1996, his family moved to another city, Ksar Hellel, near the coast, where he attended high school.

He began learning English at the age of 15 and is now fluent in three languages—Arabic, French and English. He also has a working knowledge of Spanish.

“After high school you choose the area you want to study,” Slama said. “I chose English, and I was at the top of my university. I studied in a small city called Moknine at the Higher Institute of Applied Languages.”

After receiving his bachelor’s degree and teaching certificate in 2006, Slama spent the next two years teaching English to junior high students at Sidi Bou Zid, in Tunisia, and then spent a year teaching abroad in Oman.

When Slama returned to Tunisia, a colleague who had participated in the Fulbright Program introduced it to him, telling Slama to continue to check the U.S. Embassy website for opportunities.

“He spoke highly of his experiences in his host institution and the United States society as a melting pot,” Slama said. “I felt jealous of him. His English improved a lot. I saw the Fulbright Program as an opportunity to improve my language and experience the culture, which is the main point of the program.

“I wanted to visit the United States, but I didn’t know how to (before being introduced to the Fulbright Program),” he said. “I love foreign languages, and when you learn a foreign language, you are interested in the people and their culture.”

The Fulbright Foreign Student Program is a part of America’s public-diplomacy efforts, which brings students and English-language teachers of other countries to America to work towards master’s or doctoral degrees. The Institute of International Education arranges academic placement for Fulbright nominees and supervises participants during their stay here, according to the institute.

Slama said his colleagues in the foreign languages department have been accommodating during his time at SHSU. They took Slama under their wing by introducing him to Texas culture, as well as giving him advice on how to do his job efficiently.

“I have learned a lot from the United States and this institute,” Slama said. “This has affected my life. This program helps you with the language and interacting with Americans. When I go back, my English will be much better. On a personal level, I feel that my personality has grown and that I have a new perspective to life.”

Though Slama says he did not experience much culture shock, thanks to the media and the Internet, he did have to adjust to the individualistic nature of Americans.

“Here, there is more privacy,” he said. “I like the sense of privacy. I like the law here too. Maybe it’s the law that makes America great.”

Culture-wise, Slama grew to appreciate the “diverse” American food, including Tex Mex, which he calls “totally different” from the food Tunisians eat.

“The music as well—I developed a kind of love for country music,” he said, adding that he also learned to two-step and took trips to San Antonio, Austin and Houston.

After his year in America, the Fulbright Program requires participants to return to their native country for two years. During that time, Slama said he plans to save the funds necessary to come back to the states in order to pursue a master’s degree, likely in cultural or Middle Eastern studies.

“When I was in my country, I was a high school teacher and was satisfied with that,” he said. “But when I became a part of the Fulbright Program, it gave me a boost and I now want to do something else in my life, which is advance and get my master’s degree.”

As Slama prepares to return home, he says he is excited to teach students the English he has learned and implement other teaching strategies he learned here.

“I would like to teach the students there what I have learned here about respecting the law,” he said. “The law is clear here and I like that. I will also tell them about my experiences and give them examples. In teaching language, this is very helpful.

“I will miss my students, I will miss the people I got to know here, I will miss the food, I will miss lots of things,” Slama said. “This has been one of the best years of my life; it will leave a mark on my life.”



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