Nina Brekelmans was an amazing colleague and fellow student. She was an even more amazing person and friend. Nina and I met in the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program in Amman, Jordan in August 2013. In getting to know Nina during the following months, I was struck most by the remarkable combination of austerity and discipline with which she conducted herself and regimented her life on the one hand, and the heartfelt happiness and gentleness of spirit with which she interacted with others and the world around her on the other. Many a weaker person, having subjected him or herself to such a rigorous lifestyle and exacting standards in every endeavor, would have been negatively affected and undergone a hardening of their heart; but not Nina. Nina’s smile and friendliness were contagious and although we did not share any of the same classes that year in Jordan, our meet-ups for lunch or tea, along with chance encounters at the Arabic institute or around Amman, always predictably resulted in a distinct sense of optimism and positivity. Never before had I met someone possessing the grace of balancing the highest level of personal devotion with the authentic humility of accepting the world she encountered and the people in it she met as they were. Nina radiated the joy that comes not only from living, but living well with kindness towards all.
Nina and my academic and personal friendships developed in an environment heavily influenced by her characteristic dedication and genuineness of purpose. At a dinner party over Alice Gissinger’s apartment 2-3 months into the program, Nina and I realized that we had not spoken to each other in English, highlighting the seriousness with which she took the pledge to speak in Arabic. Nina also took a sincere interest in my own plans for the future and was elated that I had deferred acceptance to the Arab Studies program at Georgetown University. Nina made it crystal clear that she expected me to come back with her to Georgetown and when I officially accepted in April 2014, she greeted me that morning by screaming and jumping up to give me a giant hug, the warmth of which will never grow cold. In word, spirit, and action, Nina’s loyalty to and pride in this university were boundless.
The experience of actually having class with and studying alongside Nina this past year at Georgetown is something I will always be grateful for. Mr. and Mrs. Brekelmans, as I told you when we crossed paths at DuPont Circle just a few weeks ago, “It was an honor spending the past two years with Nina in CASA and at Georgetown, although she set the academic bar so high that it was basically impossible to reach.” However, the difficulty of keeping pace with Nina, whether in school or in life, is not an excuse to avoid trying, to not giving it our very best. We will recall the elegance and poise with which Nina ran marathons and the race of life while finding inspiration in how she ran both. Nina would expect and accept nothing less. And despite the pain, sadness, and darkness of the irreparable void created by Nina’s loss, to quote novelist Stephen Crane, I hope that time will bring a measure of solemn comfort in the knowledge that even “the unutterable midnights of the universe will have no power to daunt the color of this soul.”