A Fond Farewell to Effat

Jan 12, 2010 by Jesse Lytle

Today was our final day at Effat, bittersweet in that one forges such intense connections on visits like this, and we've so enjoyed our time getting to know the University and everyone therein.  With Don on his way to a math conference in San Francisco, Lenore and I presented our reflections/findings to a number of Effat faculty and administrators.  Poor Lenore was fighting a cold with a raspy throat, but she did yeoman's duty and delivered some wonderful remarks.  It ended up being about two hours of presentation and conversation about possible directions for Effat, and I must say I appreciated how gracious and open minded everyone was--certainly would not have been the case at all institutions.  One senses a real hunger to take Effat to the next level by coupling best practices with local innovations.  I think they will be successful, and we will learn as much by watching their experimentation as they might from Mount Holyoke's long track record.  We're looking forward to connecting our practitioners with theirs in multiple areas if for nothing more than colleagueship, but likely also for bilateral creativity and perhaps even more.

Just as importantly, we really got a feel for the institution, the people, and the culture a bit.  We all look forward to a return trip and sending other colleagues as well.  Lenore leaves with the lovely abaya that Abeer Bar so generously provided for her visit, Don with a headscarf Lisa bargained for in the souk, and I with an Effat baseball cap (which I adore), credit again to Abeer, who in her very attuned way caught me wordlessly eying one yesterday.  Thanks, Abeer!

Lenore and I look forward to Italian night at the Red Sea Palace restaurant.  Bandar will pick us up in 12 hours (5:30 AM Jeddah time), and we'll begin the final leg of our round-the-globe, back to Boston via Heathrow.  May the British have gotten their acts together about the cold by then.  (And may Don get out of Amman tonight so he can deliver his paper.)


PS-- Meanwhile, while we we've been in Saudi Arabia, President Creighton flew to Hong Kong to deliver a talk to the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong on "Educating Women To Be Global Leaders."  In addition to the AmCham event, President Creighton was the featured guest at a reception in Hong Kong at the China Club with approximately 50 alumnae, parents, students, high school guidance counselors and other Mount Holyoke friends in attendance. She also met with some of our alumnae individually to discuss opportunities for advancing the College's mission in Asia, enjoying abundant shellfish and an economy that seems utterly unphased by the recession elsewhere.

Accompanying the president was Charles Ramsay of the development office, who reports having gotten himself an excellent new suit, really cheap.

Playing College

Jan 11, 2010 by Jesse Lytle

Marcia Grant, the US educator who helped found Effat ten years ago, called the early days "playing college."  To some extent it still feels like that.  One doesn't necessarily appreciate how fossilized parts of a venerable institution like Mount Holyoke can be until one works with the blank canvas of a new institution.  "How will our students learn?   I'm not sure; let's try this.  Oh, that didn't work too well?  Let's turn it upside down and inside out.  Let's create a new department, or rename that one, or reinvent this position."  Their squash court is now their Independent Learning Center, but it could change back with a couple hours and some basic tools.  It's pretty wild. 

We've been tasked with assessing Effat's student development program (SDP), which touches on just about everything they do.  We've had two days of conversations with all sorts of officials, and now Don, Lenore, and I (with last-minute help from a number of campus colleagues) are developing a presentation back to them on challenges and possible directions, which will range from English language admission standards to alumnae relations.  On the one hand, it feels awfully presumptuous assessing a whole institution in such a short timeframe, particularly in a foreign context like this, but on the other the Effat folks are so open minded and so ambitious that I know that any decent advice will get put to good use.  So it should be fun.

Call to Prayer in Balad

Jan 10, 2010 by Jesse Lytle

Jeddah is an ancient city, thought to be the burial place of Eve, and in fact its name means "grandmother."  That said, most of the buildings date from after World War II; it's a city that doesn't seem to have much attachment to its past.  Tonight, Lisa took us and two others from Effat into the Balad, the old city.  We walked through the souk (market), with its narrow windy streets, which still house bustling commerce with purveyors of everything from spices to incense to blenders.  

The highlight was a visit to one of the oldest homes in Jeddah, a towering 4- or 5-story house with the city's "one tree" in a garden in front.  It used to belong to a wealthy family, and at one point the king used it as his Jeddah pad.  While technically the house had been preserved, it was in no way kept up.  It looked like it had aged 400 years, semi-crumbling, crooked, roughly patched as needed, barely retrofitted for electricity.  The first floor housed some museum-like objects for public viewing, but access beyond that was restricted.  Fortunately, Lisa had made arrangements, and a man named Abdullah led us up the stairs, which had been designed for camels (Jeddah has never had water--it always came by camel from afar).  We went up flight after flight, briefly stopping in the king's sitting room with well-worn furnishings (no barriers anywhere--everything just in place as it might have been for generations), and we eventually ended up on the roof, which provided views in all four directions over the city. 

On top of the roof was a smaller wooden structure that allowed us to climb yet another story, lit only by flashlight and the ambient light from the city.  Up the stairs was what seemed to be a prayer room, with open windows on all four sides.  We took our shoes off and sat around the edges on the carpets and cushions, and Abdullah brought us tea. The fragrance of incense, flowers, and cooking spices wafted through on the evening breeze.  Then the ethereal call to evening prayer swelled up from the city from all around us.  With all five senses engaged, it was an utterly delightful, peaceful moment.


First day at Effat

Jan 10, 2010 by Jesse Lytle

Our driver Bandar picked us up from the hotel, which gave us our first real glimpse of Jeddah.  The shops are clustered by specialty, so on one block it was nothing but carpets, the next salon supplies, then toys, then auto parts, etc.  The competition must be fierce.  Passing through the honey district, Bandar explained that the best honey comes from Yemen, his home country.

We spent the day at Effat, in its clean, modern campus that used to house the Dar-al-Hanan school, Princess Loulwa's first foray into female education. President Haifa Jamal Allail, Lisa Zuppe, and their colleagues were delightful in introducing us to the institution.


If it was an adjustment being a man at a US women's college, it was a whole other level at Effat.  While there are some male faculty, most of the students presume (safely) that it's an all-female zone, so often go around uncovered.  As we walked around, our chaperones would call ahead or dash around the corner to alert people that there were men in the vicinity.  More exciting was when we would stumble upon unsuspecting students or they upon us, and they would scurry off or discretely hide if they weren't covered.  In the architecture building I turned to see a poster board with legs crossing the hallway in front of me.  It was an unusual feeling.

The highlight of the day was joining in on the selection of the annual Queen Effat Award for Citizenship, for which about 20 of their best students gave presentations to a full room of college leadership.  We had to evaluate each one according to a rubric they provided.  I couldn't imagine a more illuminating glimpse of the students and their culture, interests, and motivation.   All of them presented in English, which is their second, third, fourth, or even fifth language.  One young woman was so intimidated that she nearly passed out.  Others owned the room. 


Here's Don, hard at it along with the others on the tribunal (across from my anti-food-coma beverages: Coke in Arabic and a thimble of Arabian Coffee).

We're now back at the hotel doing some prep work for the actual consulting we've been brought here to do.  The sun has just set over the port, and the call to prayer is reverberating through the city.  We each have a laptop out and take turns sitting in the doorway of Don's room, which seems to be the only way to get data from the wireless network at the Red Sea Palace.  It's one of life's distinctive moments.

When in Jeddah...

Jan 09, 2010 by Jesse Lytle

We knew that it would be a day of contrasts, going from laid-back Sydney through cosmopolitan Dubai to conservative Jeddah.  (To be fair, it's all relative: Jeddah is the most liberal of Saudi cities given its historical focus on commerce, even though it's also the gateway city to Mecca).  Anyway, we were a little apprehensive going into Saudi; it was the first time for each of us, and we didn't know what exactly to expect.  Even though we knew not to bring in liquor, our party was two men traveling with an unrelated woman (not good).  And Lenore, who was told she could borrow a head scarf upon arrival, was feeling awfully exposed as the only woman on the plane with hair visible.  But we were completely unprepared for the surreal entrance experience Effat University provided for us.  

Picture the following scene with the pacing and choreography of a Jason Bourne movie.  In the dark, we walk down the steps from the Emirates 777 onto the tarmac, toward the waiting bus with the rest of the passengers. Two Saudi men emerge from their private car (the only non-service vehicle anywhere in sight), intercept us, and grab our bags.  Within five seconds, we're in the back seat, careening across the tarmac, dodging fuel trucks and planes.  The man in the passenger seat is all business and takes our passports, while the car speeds right up to the door of a small, nondescript building.  The two men march us inside, flash our passports at the guards and lead us quickly through what turns out to be a private arrival facility, past uniformed guards and important-looking men waiting in plush leather seats, with a swirl of Arabic language around us.  Our various attempts at greetings along the way are utterly superfluous.  We're loaded immediately into a waiting van and no more than three minutes after stepping off the plane, we're on the highway to Jeddah.  No lines, no interaction with customs or immigration (and in fact no luggage: one man had stayed behind with our passports to collect our bags, which were brought to our hotel room door two hours later).  Lesson one: when you go to Saudi, it's always good to come at the invitation of a royal princess.  (This is in effect what it means to be a guest of Effat, which was founded by HRH Loulwa al Faisal.)  Everybody has had some sort of surreal travel experience in their lives; this one took the cake for each of us, and it was a quite the punctuation to conclude our 40-hour travel day.

We're staying at a hotel called the Red Sea Palace, ready to crash, and I can see the lights of the working harbor from my window.

Changing planes in the crossroads of the world

Jan 09, 2010 by Jesse Lytle

Fourteen hours is a long time to be sitting on a plane, although we all agree that Emirates provides a fabulous flying experience (don't worry, our friends at Effat bought the tickets).  In addition to all the creature comforts, my favorite touch was the simulated starry sky on the blacked-out ceiling of the plane.  The picture I snapped doesn't do it justice, so just imagine the translation of the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal in a 777.  It was all very soothing.


We're now in Dubai for a few hours, where the terminal is still decked out in Christmas trees, which with the desert backdrop feels even more incongruous than the trees in tropical Sydney.  There's ample duty-free shopping in what amounts to a 21st century bazaar, and we're able to see the Burj Khalifa (was called the Burj Dubai up until Abu Dhabi bailed Dubai out a week or two ago) out the window, and it seems to be every bit as towering as reputed.  It looks a little Lord of the Rings, and maybe a little Blade Runner, too.

The Burj is the spiry shadow in the middle of the frame, taller than EVERYTHING by A LOT.

Farewell, Sydney

Jan 08, 2010 by Jesse Lytle

One of the more striking customs here in Australia has been the acknowledgment, delivered by every Aussie speaker on the program before his or her talk, of the aboriginal people to whom the land once belonged (or still belongs, some say). The relationship between the Australians of European descent with the aboriginal people is clearly a fraught and emotionally laden one (I've been reading a terrific David Malouf book on this trip that drives the point home).  As an American, one can't help but view the Australians' candid (if painful) recognition of evils perpetrated by settlers, as well as the aborigines' current plight, in contrast with the largely unreconciled--maybe even taboo--historical relationship between European settlers of North America and the native populations.

This poignant ritual is just one of the many glimpses into modern Australia that the 2010 Women's Education Worldwide conference has provided.  On the program today, our third and final day, were two terrific Aussie students whose student group reaches out to children of aboriginal descent to encourage college participation.  Their work bore strong similarities to much of the outreach work to disadvantaged groups in the States, and Lenore cleverly volunteered to provide information about Posse and Girls, Inc--yet another example of the value of this gathering in the dissemination of good ideas across national and cultural contexts.

Here's another tidbit, and one that might resonate with experiences in other countries: this morning's keynote speaker, Wendy McCarthy, said that out of all the male partners at 200 professional services firms she surveyed in Australia, only 1% of them had wives working outside the home.  This illustrated, to her, the price of admission into that professional and social segment of the population: men who wished to work high-powered jobs needed to have wives who would be willing to run their private lives, not just raising the children but performing numerous social functions revolving around her husband's job and career advancement.  These were often talented, educated women, who were then not able to participate in the professional sphere.  Whether or not her inference is correct, I found the 1% statistic rather stunning.


Action shot of WEW 2010

The conference ended on a promising note, with proposed pilot programs emerging in data collection on women's colleges, shared online course resources, and a WEW alumnae network.  Collegio Nuovo in Italy has floated the possibility of hosting the next iteration of MHC's successful Student Leadership Conference, while no fewer than six institutions are vying for the privilege to host the next WEW gathering in 2011 or 2012.  I guess we're becoming like the Olympics of education conferences, hopefully with less doping (but if you see plans for a new monorail at your local women's college, you'll know why). 

Touching was the group's recognition of Joanne's leadership of WEW since its inception in 2003, and there was much enthusiasm about her plan to write about the project during her sabbatical. Special thanks for this terrific conference go to Jane Williamson at Sydney who pulled it all together, and both the Ford Foundation and Nancy Nordhoff '54, who each underwrote the travel costs for a number of participants from developing countries who otherwise would not have been able to be there.  Without the diversity of institutions represented, this meeting certainly wouldn't have been anywhere near as valuable and productive as it was.

It's now midnight in Sydney after Lenore and I checked out a fairly impressive Friday night scene all around the waterfront, and in three hours we'll catch our cab to the airport for our flight to Dubai en route to Jeddah and Effat University.  Not sure what internet access will be like at our next stop, so perhaps signing off for a bit.

Ernie and Skirt

Jan 07, 2010 by Jesse Lytle

Our dinner speaker tonight was the lively Meredith Burgmann.  She's a notable Australian academic, activist, and member of Parliament, but she admits she is best known as the founder of the Ernies, an annual award given to Aussie speakers of the most sexist comments.  The leading sources, apparently, are judges, politicians, and celebrity chefs (who knew?).  The namesake of the award was a trade union official back in the 70s, but Meredith said the trade unions have gotten themselves cleaned up on this front and are no longer among the top candidates.  Such public shaming seems to be a fairly affective political instrument, which makes me wonder why the US hasn't embraced this idea.

Our day started off with a talk from Marian Baird, a scholar of women in the Australian workplace.  Striking was her discussion of the disappearing "M-curve" for women.  This is a line chart that shows women's participation in the workforce by age group, so the dip in the middle of the 'M' is in the child-bearing years when women are less likely to work outside the home.  Except, now it's barely an 'M,' more like an upside-down 'U.'  The explanation, she said, is that workplace policies have made it much harder for women to take time off for child-rearing.  Australia and the US had been the major outliers among the industrialized world on this front (with Scandinavia way out in front), and now Australia is getting its act together with government-mandated, and subsidized, parental leave for up to a year. Who's left slacking now?

Sydney city officials also used the WEW gathering as an opportunity to launch Skirting Sydney, a historical map tour illustrating women in Sydney since its founding.  Ask Lenore about her hospital tour.

These Ibises don't have anything to do with women's history that I know of.

WEW day 1

Jan 06, 2010 by Jesse Lytle

The first day of the WEW conference was not unlike coming back to school in the fall. We reconnected with many old friends and acquaintances we hadn't seen since 2008. Colleagues from as close as Smith and as far afield as Dubai, Korea, Italy, the Philippines, and India have been with the organization from the beginning, and it's always a pleasure to renew those relationships. And there is also a new cohort here--a healthy number of firsties trying to make sense of the organization--hailing from Kenya, China, and Japan among other places.

Catching up is always interesting, this time especially due to the fact that since our last gathering the world's economy melted down. Colleagues from Dubai Women's College talked about how things went from so good to so bad. Their excited optimism earlier in the decade had clearly been tempered, although they had not at all lost faith in the UAE's long-term prospects (as illustrated by the just opened Burj Dubai). Their institution, like so many, is facing tough budgetary uncertainties. On the other end of the spectrum, the leaders from Philippine Women's University in Manila were largely unphased by the recession. Relying entirely on tuition (versus endowment income or donations) it was essentially business as usual.

These sorts of contextual differences make WEW such an illuminating forum, particularly as we got into shop talk. While each institution operates within its cultural context, commonalities quickly emerge. At one panel discussion including secondary and higher education leaders from India, Australia, and the UAE, each participant in his or her own way spoke to the need to set high expectations for the girls and women they educate. High expectations are sometimes intended to counteract oppressive religious or cultural norms, parents' limited visions for the daughter's futures (particularly among low-income families), or preconceptions about women's inherent intellectual abilities. But whatever the root, the result of low expectations, across every culture represented, was often young women who, without encouragement, rigorous education, and support, would never realize their potential. In this sense our agenda is truly a shared one and our work has much overlap.

At the same time, there is so much we can learn from each other, since each institution brings its own distinctive approaches to education, each with its own inherent strengths and limitations.I was struck by the clarity of Dubai Women's College about its straightforward mission: said the president "we empower women by preparing them for important jobs." There was no visible tension between the liberal arts and career preparation in their project-based interdisciplinary curriculum. They know what success means--having their graduates meaningfully employed--and how to assess the job they do.

There were a number of interesting glimpses into education in Australia, which shares many trends with US education, from the rise of women's enrollments at all levels to the persistent gender pay gap to a startling decrease in women's enrollment in IT and computer science fields. The Aussies have done a great job in opening up their universities to the world, and the international enrollments outshine
most US institutions by a wide margin. It does make one wonder about whether the US will be able to continue to attract talent into the future.

Our Hostess with the Mostest

Jan 06, 2010 by Jesse Lytle

The University of Sydney is an urban institution of 40,000 students, and our host, the Women's College within the University of Sydney, is a small residential college. The Women's College, like Douglass College at Rutgers, e.g., is a residential and co-curricular venue, with a rich history like many of the Seven Sisters. If the WEW conference is any indication, they run a really professional operation, and they've incorporated many alumnae and students in conference support. They also generously funded the stays of a number of WEW delegates from developing countries.


In some ways the campus setting feels quite familiar, based on our common English and Scottish models, down to the original collegiate gothic architecture (and of course the requisite modernist rectangles from building binges in the 50s and 60s). Distinctive is the glorious tropical foliage and fauna, and I also noticed the proliferation of tennis courts (even grass), cricket pitches, and other sports facilities across campus. This seems to be thematic throughout Sydney, though--Aussies do love their sports. (I also like how most of their tourism involves sport, adventure, or outright danger, like the Sydney Tower: unlike, say, the Space Needle, you don't just go up it; you put on a jumpsuit and harness and walk around on top of it.).

Around the Globe for Women's Education

Jan 06, 2010 by Jesse Lytle

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA -- Over ten days, a Mount Holyoke contingent is circumnavigating the globe in the name of women's education. We have only two stops, but each promises to be worthwhile. We're currently in Sydney, Australia, for the fourth meeting of Women's Education Worldwide, the alliance of some 50 women's colleges that Joanne Creighton and Don O'Shea created along with colleagues from Smith College in 2003. Both are here in Sydney, as is Lenore Carlisle from Psychology/Education. Also in Sydney are Mary Graham Davis '65 and Cynthia Reed '80, representing the Alumnae Associartion (both also happen to be former Aussie residents).

From Here, Don, Lenore, and I go on to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to pay a visit to sister institution Effat University. It's a privilege to represent the College in these two exotic venues, and I thought I should chronicle the experience for posterity. It's hard to separate the tourist experience from the work (I did eat crocodile tail at our WEW Executive Committee dinner last night), so I'll probably do a little of each. After all, education is always rooted in its cultural context--or so I rationalize it all, as I enjoy Sydney's 85-degree sunny weather, ocean air, and fine local beverages.