You could chalk it up to genes or Bollywood.
Either way, Jenny Samaan, caught the culture and travel bug early in life. Born in Cairo to an Egyptian father and an Armenian-American mother, Ms. Samaan spent the first ten years of her life overseas.
“In Nigeria I studied French with a Belgian, learned Indian dancing from our neighbor, and watched Bollywood movies, the town’s only entertainment,” she says.
Jenny talks with us about life as a “third culture person” and her career in international education.
Do you think your family background influenced your choice of career?
Very much so. My dad came to the U.S. on a scholarship to study comparative international education at Columbia University in New York, where he met my mother in a sociology class. Later when he was a professor at Ohio University, he was always inviting students and faculty home for dinner. People from all over. I always knew the world beyond the U.S. had a lot to offer.
So celebrating cultural diversity has always been important to you.
Yes, there’s always been a congruity between my own personal values and the values of the work I’m engaged in. I remember when I got my PhD., my advisors asked me, “Now that you have your degree, what are you going to do?” And I said, “I am doing what I love. This is my career – international education.”
Your passion for international education has taken you all over the world, hasn’t it?
That’s right. After I got my M.A. in International Affairs I worked in the Philippines in a resettlement camp for Indo-Chinese refugees. Then I went to Texas to develop the international office at the University of Houston and then to Hawaii to manage international relations for the University of Hawaii. Today, I’m the Director of Global Exchange Services for the Association of American Medical Colleges.
So from academia to the health profession. That’s an interesting leap.
Yes. I’m very excited to build a platform that will help students understand the cultural dimensions of health. Today we live in a flattened world and many future doctors are interested in international learning opportunities. I manage a program that matches medical students with hospitals around the world through a global medical school network. I’m constantly on the road – scouting out and recruiting new partners – so that tomorrow’s doctors are better prepared to serve an increasingly diverse population.
Any advice for someone interested in a career in international education?
Know who you are
and what you believe in. Traveling all the time can be exhausting, especially for introverts. Some people need to feel grounded and have a place they can call home. Plus, the unknown factor is very high. So you need to know if you can handle ambiguity.
Recognize that you are the learner.
Observe and suspend judgment. Do a lot more listening than talking.
Learn as much as possible about the new culture
while also realizing that it’s impossible to prepare for everything.
What is one of your most memorable travel moments?
I’ve had so many, it’s hard to choose one. I do have a special fondness for Kosrae Island, one of the Federated States of Micronesia, where I was running an internship project for Pacific Island students. After a day spent touring the mangroves, I knew there’d be a dinner. But I had no idea the ceremony would be so big! The entire island came out to honor me and my colleague with traditional songs and dancing, as I represented the university that would change the lives and opportunities for their sons and daughters. It was very humbling.
What is one thing that you never travel without?
Earplugs! You never know what’s going to keep you from getting a good night’s sleep. The call to prayer, a rickety water pump, honking horns, or a snorer on the air plane.
You recently moved from Hawaii to Washington, DC. How was that transition?
The first year I was here I was very mindful of the cultural differences between the two places. In DC there’s a strong value placed on the individual, whereas in Hawaii the emphasis is on the collective. I see it on the Metro, in the way people drive, even the “dueling shopping carts” at the supermarket. Of course, it’s not everybody and there are exceptions but I do think the overriding attitude is “me, me, me”. I was on the Metro once and the driver actually had to announce, ‘Okay, people, this is just not working. You really need to step out of the car to let others off.’”
Your mother is American-Armenian and your father is Egyptian. How do you define yourself?
You know, I often get asked, “Where are you from? Where do you live?’ and I know it’s because my look – my skin color, facial features, etc – makes me hard to place. It’s hard for me to simplify – being born in the Middle East, having lived in Africa as a child, then moving to the U.S., and working around the world. I guess the term that best fits is “third culture person”. I I have family all over the world. I don’t feel 100% American (whatever that means) or 100% Egyptian. I’ve carved out a middle place. My life is really about helping people breakdown stereotypes. At heart I’m a global ambassador.