With her headphones strapped over her hijab, her smartphone in hand, Allison is striding up and down the Kiron Berlin office with her unstoppable optimism and good energy. Even in Berlin, Allison stays digitally connected to her colleagues in Jordan and Lebanon, chatting in English and Arabic, planning, coordinating and being a true fountain of knowledge that is brimming with ideas. Her vibrant personality has brought her a long way. Her colorful life story began in New York State, then moved to Pennsylvania, where she worked with the Boy Scouts and sang opera. She started University at 17 in West Virginia but after 9/11, she joined the AirForce and through them journeyed to North Carolina for pilot training to California for language training and then was stationed in Virginia where she continued her education at Virginia Military Institute. After a trip to Morocco she discovered her passion for Arabic Dialects, literature and culture. Upon separating from the AirForce she transferred to study in Egypt at The American University in Cairo. When the Arab Spring began in 2011 she began her own photography company to document the revolution. Allison is also passionate about education and dedicated herself to rewriting the curriculum at a local Egyptian high school to de-colonize the educational processes and push for identity reclamation; simultaneously she also participated in a virtual exchange and international online learning program ‘The AUC Dialogue Project’ between Egyptian and American universities. When returning to the US she continued this work with SUNY and the US State Department succeeded in co-creating the first intercultural assessment model for online virtual exchange. After this incredible life journey, Allison joined Kiron this January as our new Director of Regional Educational MENA. We are thrilled to have her onboard!
- Tell us about your journey
I was born in New York State, although my family later moved to Pennsylvania, where I was involved with the Boy Scouts because my dad became a part-time park ranger. When he was not a Park ranger, my parents were federal law enforcement. As a result, our family moved around every three years. I graduated high school in West Virginia and received a scholarship from the Cleveland Conservatory of Music, but after 9/11, and the ensuing declaration of war, I decided not to become an opera singer and instead joined the Air Force to follow my passion for service. This passion was shared among my siblings and by brother joined the army and sister was in the navy.
Discovering Arab culture made me realize how education and identity shape knowledge. Because of this, I had an awakening about my perceptions. My time in the service was a lot of learning and unlearning what I thought I knew. I realized that the victor always write history, and it was only through the bridge of language and literature that I could come close to understanding different perspectives on history and culture. I fell in love with the MENA Region, but it was not until I moved to the Middle East, stepping out of my books into reality – that made me realize the power of a culture telling their own story. The history and journey of ‘a people’ cannot be translated accurately through the voice of another.
After the initial shock of immersing myself in a new culture, I felt emancipated through education. As a white women speaking Arabic, the welcome was quite exceptional and overwhelming. I completed my bachelor’s degrees as a dual major in Islamic Studies and Middle Eastern History. I was then admitted my Master’s degree in Arabic Literature in 2010 with the Arab spring on the horizon and was able to be a part of history. I learned how to speak truth to power and strove to empower others to do so. As an American woman, student, and playing a role in capturing the truth in the revolution and its aftermath, one can imagine the knowledge one gains about a culture and society. I was and still am to an extent in an ‘in-between’ space and am not comfortable with categories or labels… in this undefinable way I am able to speak with both a male and female voice and with a Western and Eastern perspective, empowering women, and fostering understanding.
During my time as a student and documenting this piece of history in Cairo, something amazing happened-I landed a job at a local high school managing the English department. When I realized that the kids were learning from 20-year-old history books written and published in the US, I knew I had to intervene and create a curriculum that championed Arabic literature and voice and that also in its way spoke about the history of the region from the eyes of the other. I believe we all need to advocate for local culture and embrace diversity in this world. Therefore, I decided to rewrite the entire curriculum – replacing Shakespeare with Naguib Mahfouz and Latifa Zayat and empower the students find their love of reading and love for their identity and culture.
After a tumultuous time, when people were fighting for their rights and taking to the streets, everything seemed to calm down in 2014, and my daughter Aria was born (my daughter’s name reflecting my passion for opera). A year later, together with my husband and family, I went back to live in upstate New York. Once there, I began giving diversity workshops and university seminars on Islam and Arab culture. I received an interesting reaction from my own country and it’s people because my family name Church, and being veiled even to the point of having to send in a letter of religious affiliation to the state department.
Instead of being deterred, I followed my passion for education and intercultural exchange. I began working for State Universities of New York (64 Universities in NY), managing an online virtual exchange project between the US, North Africa, and the Middle East. As project manager of this innovative virtual exchange program, I was coordinating four Egyptian and 15 New York State universities providing professional development for professors around the globe in online learning and teaching, collaborative team teaching, blended learning, interdisciplinary syllabus design, global virtual team management, and intercultural power dynamics. With an enthusiastic team of assessment specialists we successfully created the first intercultural assessment model for online exchange. It was a fantastic experience to work in such a global virtual team, professionally developing online competencies for professors, offline workshops, blending courses and allowing collaboration across nations and disciplines – allowing an international experience and skills training through digital solutions. After such a digital leap, Kiron had to be the next step!
- What is your Role at Kiron?
I am the new Director of Regional Educational Programme MENA and. Student service coordinator for our PADILEIA project in Jordan and Lebanon, working to recruit students in the MENA region, putting the local touch on our platform, and working with/creating partnerships. Additionally, I am responsible for supervising our country office in Jordan and supporting our efforts in Lebanon.
- What is your Mission for Kiron?
I want to represent the MENA voice!
- Kiron means to me…
Kiron means to me – access to education for all!
- What are the challenges you are facing?
Since I only started started in January – none as of right now! With such a great team, I am confident of moving forward!
- What do you enjoy most about your work?
Innovating! Creating solutions that are out of the box to address student needs and organizational needs.
- What was your favorite moment at Kiron so far?
Working with my colleague Grace. Working late hours in the night at Kiron Jordan office with a passionate group of females that make up the Jordan team. Learning from Grace and all the amazing work she has done. Another recent favorite moment was going out for Pizza with my new colleague Simon last night in Berlin.
- Describe yourself in own sentence:
I am a “Nomad” – transitioning from space to space – absorbing new surroundings and adding to them what I feel valuable.
- Who are you outside of Kiron?
A virtual mum (since my daughter is still back in the States)! And an explorer – as I like to get out there and absorb knowledge.
- Some last words for Kiron…
The future is now!