Kathryn McNamara ’11
Building Bridges Between Islam and the West
January 19, 2012
Kathryn McNamara ’11 had stopped to
buy chicken skewers at a street market in Bandung, Indonesia, when a crowd of
teenage boys approached her. Their eyes widened as they struggled to reconcile
her long dress and black headscarf with her freckled skin and blue eyes.
“Miss,” one of
them asked her in Indonesian, “where are you from? Are you Turkish or Arabic?”
Several weeks into
a one-year appointment as a Fulbright English teaching assistant, it was a
question McNamara was already used to answering. “I’m American, from
Washington, D.C.,” she said. “Near Obama and the White House, and I teach
English at an Islamic school in Cijerah.”
Next came a
“But Miss,” the
boy asked, “you are Muslim, right?”
would cut to the heart of why she came to Indonesia after graduating from
Dickinson with a double major in international studies and Arabic. From her
first days at Dickinson, she knew she wanted to make an impact on the world.
“It was really the ‘engage the world’ philosophy that cemented Dickinson as my
first-choice school,” she recalls. “I knew that I wanted to focus on
The only question
was how to use her studies to make that impact.
clue came during the summer after her first year on campus, when an internship at the
U.S. Department of State Foreign Service Institute’s Sub-Saharan Africa office
helped her develop an interest in diplomacy and learn more about Islam. But the
full answer would come nearly two years later, during her year abroad in Rabat,
“That remains one
of the most formative experiences of my life,” she says.
In addition to
strengthening her skills in Arabic, McNamara developed strong ties with her
host family, taught English to disadvantaged Moroccan students and volunteered
for a women’s rights organization. That opportunity to immerse herself in the
culture, rather than just study it, showed her exactly how she wanted to make a
“My experience in
Morocco cemented my desire to work toward a greater understanding between the
United States and the diverse regions of the Islamic world,” McNamara explains.
“That’s why I applied for the Fulbright scholarship to Indonesia.”
Faced with the
Indonesian boy’s question more than a year later, McNamara didn’t need to worry
about how she would explain what a non-Muslim American was doing in Indonesia.
She’d already had plenty of experience building bridges between Islam and the West,
and this was an opportunity to build another.
“No, I’m not
Muslim,” she told the group of boys. Then she spoke about her admiration for
the Islamic faith and explained that she wears the headscarf as a sign of
respect to her students and the teachers with whom she works.
“They accepted this explanation with delighted
smiles, and I smiled as well,” she recalls, smiling again as she thinks back on
the small but important moment of cultural exchange. “This is why I’m here.”