Hayat Bedaiwi remembers many acts of kindness extended to her from the Ball State community, but one, in particular, stands out.
She was leaving Bracken Library when a University Police officer passing by asked if he could give her a high five, “because it was such a beautiful day, and he wanted to make me feel welcome in his own way. I high-fived back as this was one of the most memorable moments of my time here,” she recalled.
When Hayat arrived at Ball State’s campus to begin studies in the English department’s doctoral program, it was the first time she had been to America. She was born in Medina, a city in western Saudi Arabia that is a major Islamic pilgrimage site. When she was 6, her family moved to England after her father was given a scholarship to study abroad.
“My brain became saturated with British culture,” said Hayat, who at a young age became an avid watcher of English TV series such ‘EastEnders,’ ‘Keeping Up Appearances,’ and ‘Mind Your Language.’
“I think it was my life in England that really influenced how I thought of myself as a woman and a scholar.”
Embracing a new identity
In her teenage years, classmates “began to see that I was different. It was then that I wore the hijab and was bullied because of the way I dressed. It was only at that stage that I realized that I was different and, in some way, that I am not as British as I thought.
“So, I started to embrace my Islamic and Arabic identity, praying on time and reading the Quran with my mother. I used to hate that we spoke Arabic at home, but when I embraced who I was, I couldn’t wait to get home to see some Arabic shows and listen to Egyptian songs. I embraced the month of Ramadan, as our house was the most alive in this festive month.”
Her family returned to Saudi Arabia when her father was hired as a professor at King Saud University, a large public university in Riyadh. Hayat experienced “culture shock. … I was not familiar with the everyday Arabic everyone spoke, or wearing the long, modest abaya. I missed reading and going to the library and just getting ice cream from the roaming ice cream van in our neighborhood. I know these might sound like trivial things, but they meant the world to me at the age of 15.”
Her announced plans to become an English teacher were greeted by laughter from her high school classmates, with one shouting, “You’re a dreamer!” Undeterred, she went on to earn both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English literature and language at King Saud University and later became an academic adviser, teaching assistant and lecturer at the school’s all-female campus.
A professor at King Saud recommended Hayat consider Ball State for her doctoral studies. In 2014, she moved to Muncie with her husband, Thamer Alonizi, who is a master’s student in nursing education at Indiana University Kokomo, and their young son, Salem. The following year, their daughter, Laura, was born.
Being apart from family back in Riyadh has been hard, she said, but technology like Skype helps her stay in touch. She was even able to attend her brother’s wedding virtually this past fall, and she will do the same with her younger sister’s wedding this summer.
While enjoying life in Muncie, Hayat stays focused on her studies. She finished her oral examination and is now working on her dissertation, which focuses on Arab-American literature in the 20th and 21st centuries.
“I hope to examine many different genres like novels, poetry, short stories, autobiographies, memories, graphic novels, television series and movies — and even stand-up comedy. I use many genres because it mirrors Arab-American writers’ desire to reach a wider audience. By using literature as a medium, these writers are creating a more empathic image for Arabs and Muslims in the Western imagination and providing a partial solution for breaking down the negative stereotypes.”
When she’s finished, she will return to Saudi Arabia to become a full-time professor and is also contemplating a career in politics, “in order to help advance women’s causes in my country and in order to contribute to enhancing the educational experience in Saudi Arabia,” she said.
“It’s been fun to see Hayat’s confidence grow as both a scholar and as a learning teacher,” said Assistant English Professor Kathryn Gardiner. “She brings a special insight and perspective to her work, I feel, and we benefit from her presence at our university.”
Hayat expressed deep gratitude to the English department faculty “for their support and care throughout the course work and exams.”
“Whether it is Dr. Deborah Mix, who took some time during the summer to meet and talk with me about my readings in preparation for exams and introduced me to a whole world of opportunities as a scholar; or Dr. Emily Rutter and Dr. Molly Ferguson, who both introduced me to postcolonial theory and ethnic American literature,” Hayat said that her professors greatly shaped the scholar she is today.
“I believe it is here at Ball State University,” said the international graduate student, “that I finally found myself, embraced my identity and excelled in my field.”