Return To The Wire

Fulbright Specialist Rebecca Christianson Travels to Tunisia


Olin College Associate Professor of Applied Physics Rebecca Christianson will be traveling to Tunisia as a Fulbright Specialist. She will be blogging along the way. Please check back here for frequent updates as she shares her thoughts on her travels. 

Dear Friends,  

This weekend, I head off to begin three weeks in Tunisia on a Fulbright Specialist appointment.  The Fulbright program encourages blogging during your trip as a way to extend the reach of the cultural exchange which is one of the key goals of the program. I decided I wanted to do this so I could have an impetus to break out of my naturally introverted tendencies which might have caused me to not make the most of this experience, and so I could have a format in which to reflect on and share the adventures and insights, both small and large, that I hope to gain during this trip. I also feel very strongly that, at this moment in history, one of the most important things we should be working toward is understanding across differences. If I can help contribute to understanding in the US of the Arabic/Muslim world, then this is well worth doing.  I have never blogged before, so please have patience with me, and I am very happy to have you along on this journey!

So, let’s begin this prologue properly:  why am I going to Tunisia? Well, really, the answer to this question begins way back when I was an undergraduate at Stanford, where I was too busy and too concerned with taking every single class I could to even consider indulging in the lived experience of studying abroad.  It was only toward the end of my junior year, when just about every one of my closest friends was coming back from a “study away,” that I realized I had missed an incredible opportunity. I had bypassed my chance to really live as others live, to see the world through the perspective of people different than yourself, something you just can’t get from simple tourism.  Even this three week trip, with real purpose and deep interaction, isn’t really enough...but it is a start! (Yes, student readers, this is aimed at you….I highly recommend giving study away serious consideration!).

Not having studied away in my student days, I decided a couple of years ago that I wanted to experience a sabbatical abroad. I looked at several different possibilities, but the logistics of moving abroad for a few months or a year with three children in school and a husband with a job that he loves were insurmountable.  Instead, I applied to the Fulbright Specialist Program which coordinates shorter term exchanges of a few weeks. The Fulbright Specialist Program places experts in particular topics with academic institutions who have projects which could benefit from that expertise. In my work at Olin, I have gained significant experience in interdisciplinary project-based engineering education, so I applied to be placed on the roster as a specialist in that topic area.  

Once awarded a place on the Specialist roster, I closely watched the posted project listings to try to find projects that matched my qualifications.  For over a year, I read every single project posting in engineering education, but none were a good match. Then, last summer, a project at Esprit School of Engineering in Tunisia was posted and it was about as perfect a match as I could hope to find.  They were already heavily invested in project-based learning in engineering, but were looking to increase interdisciplinarity in these projects. I was so excited to find such a great match with my previous experience, but I knew NOTHING about Tunisia!! The best I could come up with was that it was somewhere in North Africa.  

It is some consolation to me that I at least got the geographic location correct, but the more I found out about Tunisia, the more embarrassed I was that I knew so little about it. Tunisia is the site of the ancient city of Carthage and heart of that empire, one of the true rivals of the Roman Empire.  It is the origination point of the Arab Spring in 2011. Tunisia is a beacon of progressive, liberal thought in the Arabic Muslim world including being on the forefront of Muslim women’s rights since the 1950s. Esprit, nestled in the heart of Tunis, is a school with lofty goals. The school was the first accredited engineering program in the Arabic world, and only the second on the continent of Africa. It aims to use project-based engineering education to vastly increase the employment prospects of their students in a region plagued by massive underemployment.

At the same time I applied for the Specialist project at Esprit, representatives from the school simultaneously found me on the roster and requested me for their project. The match was made!  I have been talking with my contacts at Esprit for months now, planning the details of the visit and what my activities will be (more on that later). My husband has graciously agreed to take care of our three kids solo for three weeks, with some help from my dad who is going to visit in the third week.

Since my trip is in the middle of the school year, and Tunisia is not in a particularly stable region of the world, bringing the kids along was not something my husband or I were comfortable with. This will be by far my longest time away from the kids since I became a mom.  My sister, a seasoned and adventurous traveller with a passion for history and archaeology will be joining me for a time: something I am really looking forward to, since we had great travel adventures together when we were younger. She will also be writing a blog which you can check out here.  

I am just about set to go. After my arrival, I hope to write a new blog post about every 1-2 days during my trip.  

I hope you will follow along!