Gabriella Cook Francis: Ibrahim Alumni 2016, CUNY Hunter College
Updated: Apr 2, 2021
In her own words:
The Ibrahim Program’s worth cannot be defined through an essay, picture, or even this
testimonial; but rather, through the enduring skills, specific to experiential learning, I gained as a fellow in 2016. Through our cohort’s travels in the Middle East, I noticed remarkable growth in my understanding of Middle East and Northern African (MENA) policy, religion, and politics. Though more significantly, I saw how the Program matured my perspective, flexibility, and empathy as both a student and global citizen. The uniqueness of the Program is not only in being a study abroad opportunity in the MENA region, but, also, in being cost-free to students. By eliminating the cost barrier to study abroad, Ibrahim provides an essential opportunity for students of extraordinarily diverse backgrounds to engage in substantive and challenging dialogues, which remain etched in my memory.
Visiting historically or religiously significant sights, meeting foreign dignitaries, and engaging with thought leaders in the region, provides a backdrop for students to engage in dialogues. Through these discussions, each cohort must interrogate their preconceived world views. I remember, for example, discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with friends after visiting a Palestinian refugee camp. The visit was one of the more emotional of the trip, as the camp exposed the immiseration of families and their descendants displaced by the 1948 Nakba. During our journey, I picked up a poster depicting an Arab man hurtling rocks at Israeli soldiers. It seemed reminiscent to me of black civil rights activists, like my grandparents, standing up to an oppressive government. I asked a Jewish friend if they wanted another copy. They curtly replied no, explaining that the label of the image was titled “martyr” in Arabic (which I don’t speak or read) and was reminiscent to them of the traumatic terror attacks that shaped their childhood. This trip and our dialogue afterwards was a stark reminder that the world cannot be viewed through an American, even if minority, perspective. The interaction proved to me that despite my academic study of the MENA region, I still had a lot of learning to do.
Ibrahim sparked my zeal for structured interdisciplinary and intersectional conversations, which only deepened once I got back from the Middle East. At my alma mater CUNY Hunter College, I started a student foreign policy discussion group with two friends, a Muslim Yemeni refugee and American gay Jew (also former Ibrahim fellow), to explore pressing global issues through an intersectional lens. I went on the graduate magna cum laude from Hunter, writing my senior honor’s thesis on women’s political participation in Tunisia during the Arab Spring. After graduation, I worked for the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter. There, I acted as an interim Program and Scholarship Coordinator to the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women (JFEW) Scholarship, which provides opportunities to young women pursuing careers in public service. I later went on to be a foreign policy intern with the Clinton Foundation before winning a Marshall Scholarship to attend Oxford University in 2019. Currently at Oxford, I am writing my master’s thesis on competing American and Saudi foreign aid during the Arab Spring and how foreign policy intervention correlates with a rising tide of global authoritarianism. Throughout my subsequent academic and professional achievements, the analytic and conversational tools I gained while in the Middle East have been unforgettable. The Ibrahim experience and mentorship I received was, categorically, critical to my success.
Additionally, the rapidly expanding Ibrahim alumni network is one of the program’s strongest assets. The scholars I keep in touch with have fanned out across the globe, from the Middle East to Latin America. Within the 2016 class alone, we have scholars studying foreign policy, language, security, hard sciences, and so much more. I have also found it incredibly easy to connect with members of the class preceding and succeeding ours, which is very rare in my experience with other scholarship and fellowship groups. For example, within my first couple weeks at Oxford, I became friends with another student in my course who had similar interests in social justice and the Middle East. Chatting at a cocktail reception at the Rhodes House in Oxford, I found out that he had participated in the 2017 Ibrahim trip. Ibrahim alumni, truly, are everywhere.
To me, the refugee camp example highlights the most important aspect of the Ibrahim Program. Being surrounded by other students who are so convicted in their differing beliefs, there will inevitably be disagreements and conflicts. Though with the guidance of Mark Rosenblum and the other trip leaders, these disagreements are diffused and become opportunities for growth. In a global political landscape that is increasingly beset by strong-man politics and ideological rigidity, it is incredibly powerful that Ibrahim teaches young, passionate students to acknowledge that they hadn’t thought something through fully and can change their mind. I can only imagine how much less toxic our politics would be if more political leaders could say, “I was wrong, and I’m sorry.”
I cannot overstate the significance of the Ibrahim Program to my own personal and academic development, and how essential the Ibrahim trip leaders and the alumni network has been years after participating. I only wish that more students can participate in this Program, which so uniquely prepares young leaders to enter the world guided by hope, empathy, and mutual understanding.
IBRAHIM ALUM 2016 ● HUNTER COLLEGE