Auburn University graduate student awarded Boren Fellowship to study Arabic in Morocco

Published: May 05, 2015
Updated: May 08, 2015
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The Auburn University Office of National Prestigious Scholars recently announced that Nighet Ahmed, a College of Education doctoral student in Adult Education, has been awarded a David L. Boren Graduate Fellowship.

Ahmed will spend a year studying modern Arabic at the Arabic Language Institute (ALIF) in Fez, Morocco. While there, Ahmed will conduct research on the hopes and experiences of girls and women in modern-day Morocco. She will in turn use these experiences to help refugee and immigrant women who have recently resettled to the U.S. from Northern Africa and Southwest Asia.

Funded by the National Security Education Program (NSEP), which focuses on geographic areas, languages and fields of study deemed critical to U.S. national security, Boren Fellowships provide up to $30,000 to U.S. graduate students to add an international and language component to their graduate education through specialization in area study, language study or increased language proficiency.

"I was born in Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan," Ahmed said. "I look at all that has happened there in recent years, especially since 9/11, and know that I could have been one of those persons in a refugee camp. Along with my family, I feel so fortunate to be here in Auburn and I want to use this fellowship to help promote peace and understanding, especially with refugees to the United States."

Ahmed lives in Auburn with her husband, Anwar Ahmed, a professor in Aerospace Engineering, and their children Aleem, an Engineering undergrad, and Azeem, a recent Auburn graduate in Finance. Azeem was a Harry S. Truman Scholar and won the 2014 worldwide Clinton Hunger Leadership Award. He also won the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award and was a finalist this year for a Rhodes Scholarship.

"I will begin my orientation this summer in Washington, D.C., before beginning intensive Arabic training in Berkley, California," Ahmed said. "From there I will go to Morocco. Although I have traveled a great deal I have never set foot on the African continent, so I am very excited about that."

In addition to her mother tongue of Urdu, Ahmed also speaks English and Persian. She has a working knowledge of Pashto.

"The stated purpose of the Boren Fellowship is language acquisition and its relation to U.S. national security, but I am equally passionate about using this opportunity to help women emigrating from these areas and to foster understanding," said Ahmed, a founding member of Auburn's International Women for Peace and Understanding. "The media often oversimplifies complex issues, and equates all people from this part of the world with terrorists. But these are people with hopes for their children, with dreams of a better world. I want to be part of that. It begins by learning the Arabic language, which will help me just be with the people of Morocco."

"Lack of understanding is what creates fear or mistrust," she said. "That is yet another reason I am passionate about adult education, and why I teach in the OLLI at Auburn classes about the importance of public awareness. Having lived both here and in Pakistan, I have a unique appreciation for Auburn. Every day that I walk on our campus, with every step I am deeply thankful for being here. Auburn is like a family, and I want to share this feeling wherever I go."

Ahmed said Morocco is fairly modern, and not as conservative as other countries in the Maghreb and Levant regions. As she works to relate to the women there, Ahmed will also get a dose of history. Her classes will be held at the University of al-Qarawiyyin, in Fez. The school was founded in the year 859, and is the oldest existing, continually operating educational institution in the world.

"The school was established by two Muslim sisters," she said. "Women's education has traditionally been and needs to be the cornerstone of a progressive society."

Ahmed said the support she receives from the faculty in the College of Education's Department of Educational Foundations, Leadership and Technology is especially meaningful to her.

"My major professor, Maria Witte, is one big reason I received this fellowship in the first place," Ahmed said. "She and the other faculty members believed in me and would not let me stop in my application efforts. Our department has an absolutely great program from which I have learned much and benefitted immensely."

"There is no opportunity that she will forgo in the pursuit of her passions," Witte said of Ahmed. "She goes after every opportunity and will figure out a way to make it happen. The Boren Fellowship, for example, required her to connect with a wide range of people and disciplines, but she wants to look at women as part of her research and she found a way to do it. Very few graduate students from education-related majors receive this award. She was simply determined to make it happen."

Honors College Associate Director Paul Harris was also instrumental in Ahmed's pursuing the fellowship.

"I am deeply indebted to Dr. Harris for his guidance throughout this process and for the trust he has placed in me," Ahmed said. "He is the driving force behind my getting the fellowship. I am not sure if his service to Auburn and the student body can be properly communicated. He is a wonderful person."

"I think the world of Nighet and her family," Harris said. "What makes her story so meaningful and so happy is that she is a great example of the promise of Auburn and the College of Education. She is the mother of two grown sons, yet she is pursuing a Ph.D, showing the world that education never stops. Despite being beyond the traditional age of other graduate students, she believes she can compete for the top awards, become fluent in Arabic, and use that knowledge to build bridges between people."

"In this job I have the opportunity to work with many great students and I am happy when they do something big. But for Nighet to achieve this, that was this happiest moment of my year. She is a great representative of Auburn, and will go out and show the world what Auburn is all about."

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