Nina and I met at Middlebury’s summer Arabic language school in 2010. Everyone had to take a placement test, and I tested into a class that was too advanced. I got to the class early and everyone was already chatting in Arabic about their far more accomplished backgrounds. None of the kids looked to be my age, some had graduate degrees, and many had clearly already studied or lived in the Middle East. Lucky for me, there was Nina. She and I both had just finished our sophomore years of college. I can still picture her sitting at the table on the first day, looking cheerful and eager to begin class, but most importantly to me, she was the only friendly face in the crowd. We sat together, getting to know one another. Nina never put on airs, she is one of the most modest people I have met, especially given her many many accomplishments.
The Middlebury program required everyone to speak only in Arabic for 10 weeks, so we had numerous hours for small talk and chit chat with that limitation. With Nina, the chit chat could run for hours, because even though she was younger than most students, she had great stories about her worldly life, passions, and interests and could convey them very well in the language. She was so easy to talk to.
Within a week of the program beginning, I realized the class with Nina was too advanced for me, and so I dropped down to a lower level. Nina stuck it out as the youngest girl in her class with the fewest number of courses of formal Arabic instruction. She was so determined to challenge herself and disciplined enough to reach her goals. While we were in the same class, we worked together on the homework. When I dropped down a level, Nina continued to help me with my homework and answer my questions throughout the program. Nina was incredibly generous with her time in helping others, no matter how busy she was. This is what she loved to do. And she loved the study of Arabic and how it brought her to interact with others.
Nina talked about how she was happiest when she was studying abroad in the Middle East, because Arabic was her favorite subject, and being there was a chance to study that subject at all hours of the day, in every situation. Whether it was sitting in class, giving directions to a cab driver, hanging out with her local language exchange partner, or running past the vendors on the Corniche in Alexandria, Egypt, she was soaking up the language just being in the Middle East.
Two weeks ago we went for lunch and when talking about her future, she said that she was interested in translating fiction from Arabic into English. She loved the idea of entertaining two of her passions. On top of her rigorous course load in her final semester of her Arab Studies program at Georgetown, she took a creative writing class in the English department and really enjoyed it.
I asked her to lunch because I was hoping to get her advice and feedback on a creative writing project of my own. One of the last things she said to me was, “Lizzie, you just tell me what you need me to do to help you, and I’ll do it.”