HARTFORD, CT, May 14, 2012 – If there had been a competition in Tunisia to find the most enthusiastic ambassador to represent that country, Haifa Gharbi would have walked away with the honor. Conversely, if Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra needed a person to shout the praises of Hartford, Haifa Gharbi would be tops on the list.
Needless to say, Gharbi is elated to have spent this academic year at Trinity, a college in a city and a region where she has savored every minute, leapt at the ability to talk about her homeland, and maximized the social and cultural opportunities afforded to her.
To say that Gharbi is brimming with enthusiasm – about Tunisia, Hartford and Trinity – is an understatement.
“It’s a huge honor for me to have come here,” said Gharbi, 29, who arrived at Trinity in August 2011 and will be leaving shortly. “I’m really, really happy to have done this. It was always part of my dream to do a Fulbright and to be able to talk about my country.”
Gharbi is a walking encyclopedia about Tunisia, where she received her B.A. in English literature from a university in the city of Sousse and where she has taught English to secondary school students in Mahadia for four years.
Teaching has always been Gharbi’s passion, having been inspired by her mother. “She had a great impact on us,” said Gharbi, referring also to one of her brothers, who is a professor. Gharbi’s father is a retired engineer, and her other brother is a diplomat.
Whether the ebullient Gharbi is teaching Arabic to Trinity students, auditing classes, attending social events, participating in seminars, discussing the Tunisian Revolution or just chatting with members of the campus community, Gharbi said she always tries to “fulfill my mission here as a cultural ambassador of my country.”
She has also tried to make the most of her time here. In one recent week, for example, she screened a Tunisian movie at Cinestudio and then helped lead a discussion with Sara Kippur, assistant professor of language and culture studies; published an article for the Blume Language and Culture Learning Center; recorded a Podcast about a Tunisian poet, Aboul-Qacem Echebbi (http://blume-center.trincoll.edu/node/202); joined the Trinity caravan that went to Yale-New Haven Hospital for the event, “Don’t wait, Donate;” spoke about hip hop music in Tunisia in the 1990s; and delivered a lecture at Wesleyan University.
If that wasn’t enough, she just returned from Boston, where she visited the Boston Celtics Museum and Fenway Park, a trip she called “amazing and unforgettable.”
All of that, of course, is in addition to Gharbi’s academic responsibilities, which include being a teaching assistant to Kifah Hanna, assistant professor of language and culture studies, who is Gharbi’s sponsor.
“I love Trinity because it’s busy all of the time,” said Gharbi. “I want to attend every event on campus and I really try to enjoy each and every moment,” she said.
Gharbi has connected with campus organizations, such as the House of Peace, the ACLU and Green Campus so that she can “use every occasion to talk to people about my country. I even talk during lunch about Tunisia. People are definitely interested.”
Gharbi, who comes from a well-educated family, first found out about the Fulbright Scholarship Program in 2003 but didn’t get around to applying until the summer of 2010. She noted on her application that she preferred to teach at a college or university on the East Coast.
When Gharbi found out that she had been chosen, she contacted Hanna, who helped Gharbi find a place to live and get settled. Gharbi ended up living on nearby Fairfield Avenue with Brigitte Schultz, associate professor of political science, who introduced Gharbi to American culture. Schultz took Gharbi to New York City, to the theater and to other cultural venues.
“I’m so grateful to her,” Gharbi said of Schultz. “She showed me the American lifestyle and was kind of like family to me.”
Gharbi, who has a love of travel, speaks four languages: English, Arabic, French and Italian. She said her family has always encouraged her to “explore the world” and to take an interest in world events. She is also an avid sports fan and grew up knowing as much about the National Basketball Association as just about any American sports fan. She idolized former Indiana Pacer Reggie Miller.
And while she is thrilled to have lived for the past year in the United States, she speaks glowingly of Tunisia, the smallest country in North Africa with a population of nearly 11 million. Gharbi refers to Tunisia as one of Africa’s “most progressive countries,” with a well-educated and sizable middle class. Because of its proximity to Europe, many Tunisians watch French and Italian programs on television. Many of her countrymen also know quite a bit about the United States.
In fact, there are 17 Tunisians in the U.S. this year on Fulbright Scholarships, although she hadn’t known any of them until they met at the Tunisian Embassy. They attended a four-day workshop in Istanbul, Turkey, where they got to know each other.
Gharbi will be heading home soon, excited to be reunited with her family but having been overwhelmed and overjoyed with her experience at Trinity, in Hartford and in the U.S.
“I never forgot, even for one minute, that I was an ambassador for my country.”