Africa in Our Lives: Kaylah Cruz-Herrera

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“I love majoring in African Languages and Literature because it gives me such a unique view of the Arab world and Islam.” – Kaylah Cruz-Herrera (Photo courtesy of Cruz-Herrera)

Studying Arabic has not only allowed Kaylah Cruz-Herrera (x16) to understand the words of the Muslim Call to Prayer, but has opened new doors to cultural dialogue and understanding of the Arab world.

Field of study: African Languages & Literature, Gender & Women’s Studies
Hometown: Racine, WI

What brought you to Madison?

I am a Wisconsin native and I wanted to study at a university that was connected to my community back home. I am proud to study at UW-Madison because much of the research conducted here is dedicated to improving the lives of Wisconsinites.

What do you enjoy most about attending UW-Madison?

I enjoy studying at UW-Madison because I have so much freedom with my education. Even as an underclassman, I was able to enroll in a graduate level seminar and help a professor with her research project. Students really have the freedom to delve into an area that interests them here.

What inspired you to study Arabic?

I was inspired to study Arabic because of the challenge it presents to English-speakers. Not only does Arabic have its own writing system, but it is also based off of a root system where one consonantal root can branch into many different words. After three years, I continue to study Arabic because I love that many Arabic-language programs also place a large emphasis on cultural understanding and dialogue. This has made me think critically not only about my perception of the Arab world and Islam but also my own community and values.

What is your favorite Arabic phrase?

“لا شكر على واجب”

“La shukra ‘ala wajib.” This phrase is used a lot in Morocco as a response to “thank you,” but it literally means something like “there is no thanks for a duty.”

How did you become interested in your major?

UW-Madison is very unique in that the Arabic language program is located with African studies and not Middle Eastern studies. I love majoring in African Languages and Literature because it gives me such a unique view of the Arab world and Islam.

I became interested in gender and women’s studies because I have always been interested in social issues. Last semester I decided to switch from my major from political science to gender and women’s studies because UW-Madison’s Gender & Women’s Studies Department challenges the student to be critical of all forms of oppression and all types of privileges whether they are based on gender and sexuality or race, class and ability. In the future, I want to work in international relations, and I think it is valuable to be able to analyze a situation from a human angle in addition to political angle.

What was a highlight from your study abroad experience in Morocco?

My proudest moment throughout my experience in Morocco was finally being able to understand the adhan (Call to Prayer). As in most Muslim countries, the adhan is called out five times each day at the beginning of every prayer time. I arrived in Morocco an absolute beginner in Arabic, so the adhan had always been something I heard but didn’t understand. Finally, after probably five months of hearing this call every day five times, I was out shopping with my friends when I finally understood all of the words. I was really proud of myself, especially because Arabic can be such a difficult (and frustrating) language in the beginning.

What would you tell students who are debating a study abroad experience in Africa?

My one piece of advice would be that you do not have to justify your decision to study abroad in Africa to anyone. Africa is often portrayed as a land of conflict and despair, so your parents and friends will have questions (and comments) about studying abroad in Africa. Like I said, you don’t have to justify yourself, and I think the best response to their questions of  is to just admit that you DON’T know what it will be like but you are prepared to learn about your new community and adapt to a new lifestyle.

What inspired you to apply for the Critical Languages Scholarship and how did you arrive upon Oman as a destination?

Many programs in the Arab world have been closed in the wake of the Arab spring. I chose to apply to the Critical Language Scholarship Program (CLS) because they offer advanced Arabic programs in several cities all over the Arab world.

CLS recipients do not choose their site placements. Before the program placed me in Oman, I had no interest in the Gulf and I don’t think I would have ever considered studying in a Gulf state. That said, Oman is an interesting country because over the past forty years–one generation–there has been so much development; across the street from my host family’s sprawling, modern three-story house is the old family house made of clay and with no electricity or running water.

Do you have other travel aspirations? If so, where and why?

I definitely have plans to return to North Africa. I have always been interested in politics and community organizing, and I would love to live in Tunisia or Egypt to learn more about the revolutions and transitions.

What is your dream job?

I would love to work with women whether in the U.S. or abroad. My dream job would be to work at a community organization that offered services to women. Eventually, I intend to work in policy and research.

Profile produced by Meagan Doll.

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