Exchanged experiences in the Arab world
Alumni combine passion for teaching and traveling
Published: Monday, December 3, 2012
Updated: Monday, December 3, 2012 17:12
Three years ago they traveled the world—Claire Cooper ’11 spent her junior year abroad in Morocco, while Anna Khandros ’11 studied in Lebanon and spent her spring break traveling through Oman. Two years ago, they were back together, living in the Foster Mods for their senior year.
After graduating, the two returned to their globe-trotting ways, this time reversing roles—Cooper is a Fulbright Scholar teaching English in Oman, while Khandros works for the Peace Corps in Morocco.
“I came to Morocco knowing largely only what Claire had taught me,” Khandros said.
“When she received her invitation to go to Oman, everything she knew about Oman came from what I had told her because I had been there on spring break. I told her it was the most beautiful place and she had to go,” Khandros said.
Khandros is now eight months into the 27-month program, and Cooper fell in love with Oman and chose to stay for a second year. The two friends have come a long way from their days living together in Mod 10.
Khandros’ journey got off to a rough start—the day after graduating, she found out that her departure date had been pushed back from September 2011 to early 2012.
Morocco had always been her first choice, but budget cuts meant that she was changed to an assignment in Kazakhstan.
“It was definitely hard,” Khandros said. “They tell you not to quit your job because you never know what will happen, but it was … definitely hard finding out that I wouldn’t be doing what I wanted to be doing. It made me question my reasons for wanting to go in the first place.”
Khandros stuck with it, and her patience was soon rewarded—the Peace Corps chose to begin phasing volunteers out of Kazakhstan, and Khandros was reassigned to Morocco.
Khandros, who majored in Politics, joined nearly 120 other volunteers in the capital city of Rabat in March for training and arrived at her final site, Bou Anane, in May.
Khandros, a Brooklyn, N.Y. native now finds herself three hours from the nearest city, six hours from the nearest supermarket and more than an hour away from the nearest Peace Corps volunteer.
“The region is one of the poorest, so the volunteers are more spread out,” she explained.
Working through associations and local community centers, Khandros has set up several after-school workshops for local youth.
She teaches everything from aerobics to clubs centered on health and the environment, but she says her focus has been on leadership and employability for the young adults.
“Right now there are clubs seven days a week, and it’s way harder than I thought it would be,” Khandros said.
“Two years ago we used to both go out at night, and now I spend it teaching and reading,” Khandros said.
Cooper had an easier go of it, leaving for Oman as planned in September 2011. Cooper, who majored in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, spent 10 months teaching English at Caledonian College of Engineering in Muscat and fell in love with the country.
“It’s such a peaceful place,” she explained. “Everyone is extremely kind and helpful. It’s absolutely gorgeous.”
Cooper loved her time there so much that she decided to spend another year on the Arabian Peninsula.
After completing her program and returning home for the summer, Cooper took a job as a programming coordinator at the Center for International Learning in Muscat.
Cooper does a variety of jobs for the CIL, including planning trips and guest lectures for study abroad students.
Cooper is in Oman at a unique time—with the Arab Spring and social unrest spreading across the Middle East, the atmosphere in the country can be nerve-wracking at times.
“There’s a lot of tension in this society,” she said. “People are trying to figure out how much of globalization they want to accept and how they should maintain their cultural identity.”
Cooper said that it is an exciting time to be there because “Oman is a really unique development story. It was underdeveloped for a long time, but the Sultan took over in 1970 and changed it all.”
Both Khandros and Cooper credited their time at Brandeis with helping to prepare them for their journeys.
“I got a very strong academic understanding of the Middle East and Islamic influences,” Cooper said. “My life experience here [in Oman,] I can experience it through the lens of these academic concepts that I learned at Brandeis. We always talk about the ‘Brandeis bubble,’ but I learned to talk to people with a wide range of geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds, and with a wide range of ideas.”
Khandros agreed, adding that talks with Cooper helped her realize that she wanted to travel after graduating.
“I used to crawl into Claire’s bed and we would talk every Saturday and Sunday morning,” she said. “We always had a lot of similar goals and interests. We didn’t know what we wanted to do with our lives, but we both wanted to explore the world.”
Having not seen each other in nearly a year, Khandros and Cooper decided to meet up over winter break.
The duo will fly to Thailand in a few weeks along with Helen Shapiro ’11, who also lived in their Mod and now lives in Cambridge, Mass.
They will spend several weeks traveling the Southeast Asian country, and plan to spend New Year’s Eve together.
“It’ll be a Mod 10 reunion,” Khandros said. “I keep wondering if this is what our lives will be like—meeting up with each other in different places all over the world.”