Latifa Almaraj

Class Year: 

2010
Hometown: Isa Town, Bahrain

School: 

IBN Khuldoon National School

Language: 

Arabic
The best part of it is the fact that you’re with people that are so worldly and so cultured. I feel like I’m so lucky to have that as an international student. In the Huntsman Program, everyone is interested in where you are from. It makes you happy to be part of a community that appreciates everything about you and would like to learn more about you.

The Huntsman Experience

Latifa was born in Bahrain and had lived there all her life, before coming to the Huntsman Program.  She says that, growing up, her only exposure to Western culture was through the media. Coming from a small island nation like Bahrain, Latifa says she was part of a community where "you know everybody." One of the things she enjoys about the Huntsman Program is that small community feeling.

When Latifa found out she was accepted to the Program, she says it "was truly a memorable day." She had also considered a program at the London School of Economics, which would be a lot closer to home and would allow her to graduate in three years. She ultimately decided on the Huntsman Program and says it was the wisest decision she's made.

The Huntsman community has been wonderful for Latifa, not only because of its size and intimacy, but also because of its openness. As an international student, she's appreciated having a support network made up of people who are interested in other cultures, and therefore in her own. "I've loved meeting people with different perspectives, people who actually have been all over the world and I think that's something very unique to Huntsman." 

The Huntsman academic program turned out to be just as stimulating for Latifa as its social aspect. She's really interested in economic development and would like to work in that field globally and then go home to Bahrain to work in the public sector or with nonprofit organizations. She's chosen to study Finance because, she says, "politics and economics go hand in hand. For a stable country, you need a stable economy." Here at Penn, Latifa has learned how one "can harness the power of the private sector to better the public. I'm really interested in the dynamics of how private and public can work together."

Latifa has also fallen in love with Middle Eastern politics through the Huntsman curriculum. During the spring semester of her freshman year, Latifa took PSCI 253 (International Politics of the Middle East) with Professor Lustik, and describes it as "one of the best classes I've taken at Penn." Latifa had been admitted to the Huntsman Program with French as her target language, but after taking Professor Lustik's class, she decided to switch to her native language, Arabic, so that she could study abroad in the Middle East. Ironically, Latifa says that she "had to actually leave the Arab world to realize how much I appreciate it!"

Study Abroad in Lebanon

Latifa's study abroad experience was unlike any other. She chose to study in Beirut despite the fact that there was a travel warning against it at the time. Even the study abroad office at the university cautioned her against the trip, but Latifa was determined.  She viewed Lebanon as the perfect mix between Arab and Western culture, and she liked the idea that she could use her French language skills as well as practicing her Arabic. At the same time she says that the American University in Beirut (AUB) is "a legacy in the Arab world," so she wanted to be a part of that.

AUB lived up to its reputation in Latifa's eyes. She took a sociology class and three political science classes while abroad and says they were "unlike anything I could take in the US." The professors had grown up in the area, so they understood Middle Eastern politics from a very different perspective. For example, one of Latifa's political science courses was taught by a representative of the opposition group in Parliament. The teaching style was also quite different. All of Latifa's classes were seminars with no set lesson plan. Professors assign some books and "just talk," but Latifa remembers being captivated by everything they had to say. She developed very close bonds with her instructors. "You can sit and talk with your professor about anything," she says.

In choosing a study abroad location, Latifa admits that the political instability was appealing in a way. She wanted to take advantage of this unique opportunity to experience Arab politics firsthand. "Everyone was telling me not to go," recalls Latifa. At the time, the country had no president, and the opposition party was camping downtown. Some described Beirut as "a ticking timebomb. People knew something would happen." As it turned out, Latifa's experience of politics in Beirut was not all classroom discussions. She was in the city during a countrywide strike, which escalated into violence. Latifa was evacuated at the border with Syria and sent home to Bahrain until the situation was resolved, two weeks later.

Latifa had already been in the city for several months and was truly moved by the situation. "Beirut was taken over," says Latifa. It was "so sad… I haven't met anybody who has been there and hasn't fallen in love - it really has a special aura." Once a compromise had been reached, Latifa was able to return to Lebanon and stay for another month. When she returned, "everyone was so happy and celebrating." But, adds Latifa sadly, "some people say they just put a band-aid on the problem, and that it's not really a lasting agreement."

A World of Opportunities

During her freshman summer, Latifa was an intern for Bahrain's Economic Development Board (EDB). She had the opportunity to work under one of the people responsible for "Vision 2030," a framework for Bahrain's social and economic development moving forward. "It was literally setting a plan for the country," Latifa explains. Given the high-profile nature of the document, Latifa was surprised by how much responsibility she was given. During her first day on the job, Latifa's boss showed her a proposal and asked for her opinion.

During her junior summer, Latifa will be in Paris, working at an energy consulting firm. Latifa's experience at EDB confirmed that she would like to work in the public sector, but it also exposed her to some of the roadblocks and bureaucracy associated with that kind of work. After graduation, she says, she would like to work in consulting for a few years to gain some private sector credibility before moving back into the public sector.

Latifa feels that the Huntsman Program has been instrumental in allowing her to explore many different possibilities. "A lot of people find the curriculum daunting," she says, "but contrary to popular belief there is a lot of space to maneuver and to customize it to fit what you want out of it." Aside from taking pertinent classes at Penn and finding relevant internships during the summer, Latifa has been able to explore her interests through the university's extracurricular programs.

Since she arrived freshman year, Latifa has been involved with Penn Arab Student Society. It's a small group, which welcomes students who are either from or interested in the Middle East. The organization offers guidance and mentorship to Middle Eastern freshman, and it works to promote a more positive image of the region. "We want to draw people to fact that there's more than just politics and what you see on TV," says Latifa. "There is more to the Middle East than Lebanon and the Palestine-Israeli conflict. There are so many different countries that get overlooked and people fail to recognize the beauty of their culture. That gets lost in all the violent images in the media."