Libyans reunite at WSU, earn doctorates together

By Kyla Emme, College of Education intern

PULLMAN, Wash. – A shared love of English brought together three undergraduates in 2000 in Benghazi, Libya. Years and separations later, they completed Ph.D.s together in language, literacy and technology at Washington State University in 2015.

Eman Elturki, Riema Abobaker and Ibtesam Hussein teach and do research at WSU and University of Idaho and have formed deep attachments to the area. However, all three hope to return to their home country to introduce innovation and a student- and inquiry-centered spirit to education there.

Helping each other transition

As early as age 6, the women began the quest to learn a second language – entirely on their own.

Riema Abobaker, left, Ibtesam Hussein and Eman Elturki when they graduated with their Ph.D. degrees a year ago. Behind them is advisor Tom Salsbury.

“In elementary school, English was not a requirement,” Elturki said. “It’s different now, but during our time it was a private thing. We went to after-school private places to learn English.”

The trio met while taking classes in the English department at the University of Garyounis in Benghazi, Libya. They parted ways for master’s programs: Abobaker attended the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, Elturki the University of Southern California and Hussein the University of Pennsylvania.

“Elturki was there for three or four months earlier, so I was able get information from her,” Hussein said about the transition to the U.S. Abobaker, who later moved to Boston, called Hussein on the phone, emailed and Skyped.

“Once I got to Boston, she was like my fairy godmother,” Abobaker said. “‘What do I do with this?’ I would ask. She would respond: ‘You do 1,2,3,4,5…’ She’s very, very organized.

“It was a shock for me to have that sense of independency,” Abobaker said. “In Libya, I’d never done anything by myself. Everything was handed to me on a platter, you might say.”

Advisor a key part of support system

Hussein eventually moved to the Pacific Northwest and Abobaker began considering WSU for her Ph.D.

“I was very confident that I would like the city and would like the school,” Abobaker said. “It was the first Ph.D. program I was accepted into, but as soon as that happened, I went for it.”

“Since Riema got admitted and she liked WSU, she encouraged me to apply,” Elturki said.

WSU was able to provide a good support system for the three friends; among the most important parts was College of Education advisor Tom Salsbury.

“He’s not just an advisor to us,” Abobaker said. “He’s more of a friend because during that time of the Arab Spring, war broke out in Benghazi. He was sending emails like ‘How are you doing? I know things have been difficult.’

“He’s been fabulous with keeping us on track, telling us to focus and not worry about what’s going on over there,” she said. “We owe him too much.”

Salsbury was the advisor to many Libyan students at that time, and since then more Libyans have arrived to study in Pullman.

“We have kind of a big Libyan community – and international students in general,” Elturki said.

“We have one big mosque in Pullman and another in Moscow,” Hussein said, “so I feel that I’m free to go to the mosque anytime I want without being harassed. I think that people are accepting us as international Muslims.”

Aspiring to improve Libyan education

A year after graduation from WSU, the three reflected on the differences between the higher education systems in the U.S. and Libya.

“The transition to the U.S. was a bit difficult because of the student-centered approach,” Hussein said. “Also, giving presentations and group work are things we aren’t used to in Libya.”

No presentations or group work may sound like a dream to some American students, but Elturki said there is a downside: “The teaching approach over there is teacher-centered; the teacher is the authority. You can’t even talk; you have to get permission. You can’t even give your opinion.”

But the three friends hope to change that in the future.

With parents, grandparents, cousins and other relatives in Benghazi, “I feel like I’m obligated to go back and teach,” Elturki said.

“My thoughts are the same,” Hussein agreed. “I want to get some experience here, so I’ll probably stay a couple of years and then go back to Libya.”

With doctorates, they can return as official professors and have a say in changing the system – updating outdated course materials and giving students a voice in the classroom.

At home in the world – in Pullman

Until that happens, though, the friends are just fine living on the Palouse. It’s a special place, they said – a town that holds the world within its small population and can make just about anyone feel at home.

“I wouldn’t have imagined that there was a place like this,” Elturki said.