Watch Night 2017

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Tis the season when people and organizations seek funding to support their causes.

I know. We sent out our annual newsletter earlier this month. On the cusp of 2018, Watch Night 2017 in Liberia, I am writing to share the stories of success of the young women whose college educations we have supported in 2017 and will continue to fund in 2018. And yes, ask you for your support.

As a photojournalist, I spent Watch Night 2014 in Liberia while covering the humanitarian response to the Ebola epidemic. Among the stories we documented, my colleague, Brian Castner, and I covered the news of the impending reopening of schools. I photographed hundreds of high school students and their parents as they queued to register for classes. Our story, Progess in Liberia: Schools Shuttered by Ebola Set to Reopen, published on Jan. 18, 2015.

During our coverage, Brian met and interviewed Sister Barbara Brilliant, the dean of the Mother Patern College of Health Sciences. Brilliant and her team helped facilitate many of the Ebola Treatment Units throughout Liberia.

“These private little places, all over the country, they did the hero work by simply staying open,” she said. “They triaged, directed people away from the ETUs that didn’t need to be there. People were scared, they had no equipment, but they stayed open anyway.”

When I left Liberia, I asked Brian to help me connect with Sister Barbara. We now sponsor a young woman, Davidetta Forkpah, who is studying social work at the Mother Patern College. Davidetta is doing well in school and she’ll begin her second semester of sophomore year in 2018.

If you’d like to learn more, you may read and download our newsletter here: 2017_newsletter

I write to let those of you who reads this post, who read our newsletter, who read of the efforts of the Liberian people in the face of Ebola epidemic, that each one of you matters. Each one of you can make a difference.

On the cusp of the new year in 2014, Liberia was reeling from the onslaught of the Ebola epidemic. Days ago, Liberians elected a new president to succeed President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in the country’s first democratic transition of power in more than 70 years.

Our work with our nonprofit has reinforced my strong belief that each one of us can make a difference. One person, one idea, one act of kindness can spark change.

As I learned in Liberia, Watch Night can be a time for reflection, remembrance, gratitude. And giving.

If you’d like to support our work, you may use PayPal to donate funds.

Thank you for your interest, support and love these past 10 years. Here’s to a blessed, healthy, prosperous 2018.

 

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Out of Line

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I went to the post office to mail two small packages.

On an impulse, I bought a book at our local independent bookstore. I thought a student would appreciate the read. I had another book of essays from the same bookstore that I thought a fellow swimmer would enjoy.

I wrapped each in a brown paper bag I’d cut to size and sealed with Scotch tape, the same way my thrifty grandmother used to wrap packages. I wrote the name and address on each with a ballpoint pen with blue ink. Again, just like my grandmother.

I lined up in the queue. An older gentleman waited for the next of two postal workers to call him to the counter. I was the third person behind him. A middle-aged man in hoodie with Phish printed on the front stood on the other side of the counter, which offered mailing supplies and served as the boundary for waiting in line. The guy had four boxes on the counter. A shorter woman waited next to him.

When the postal worker called and motioned for the next person to step forward, the guy to the left began to gather his boxes while the older gentleman shuffled slowly yet deliberately to the counter. The man with the Phish hoodie started grumbling loudly, asserting he was next. Mercifully, the older gentleman at the counter probably couldn’t hear the tirade of complaints the man unleashed. The Phish fan didn’t look at anyone. He growled at everyone and no one, complaining that he was next in line. (I’m not asserting a correlation between this guy’s behavior and fans of Phish. For the record, the band is playing in New York today. Vocalist and guitarist Trey Anastasio will join other musicians  at a Concert for Island Relief at Radio City Music Hall in New York on Jan. 6, 2018.)

The young woman who would follow the older man turned and looked at the rest of us.

“This is the line,” she said. She didn’t look at the man.

He began another tirade. Complaining about the post office. The postal workers. He raised his voice though he didn’t yell. He never looked at anyone. He kept asserting he was the next in line. That the employees in the post office didn’t know what they were doing, no one was helpful. The woman with him fluttered around him, asking him to calm down.

Passive aggressive. Angry. Two marks against him in my book.

Everyone in line was cowed, looking at the ceiling or the wall or the floor. I looked straight at him and spoke up.

“You’re out of line,” I said. Literally and metaphorically.

He kept ranting, not at me directly, same passive aggressive nonsense, filling the lobby with his anger and bluster. I told him he was being disrespectful to everyone, including the older gentleman at the counter and the postal worker.

When the postal worker called for the next person, the guy gathered his boxes and headed to the counter, still grumbling loudly, as the woman followed him. The young woman hadn’t even made a move for the counter. She let the guy go ahead of her.

The postal worker pointed out that the man had not addressed his packages. He told him the packages needed to be ready to mail when he got to the counter.

Hello Karma, my old friend.

The postal employee kept a calm, respectful tone as he asked the man to step aside, address his packages and then return to the counter.

The guy made another scene while the woman with him tried to soothe him. “Calm down. Let’s just leave. What’s the big deal?”

The manager came out and asked if anyone needed assistance. It was interesting. People continued to shun eye contact. The young woman gave me a hand signal to stay quiet.

The guy was such a bully–and a baby. I kept my head and eyes up, looking right at him.

The manager went back behind the counter yet continued to monitor the man. One by one, each of us mailed our packages. When I left, the man was still addressing his packages.

After I’d told the man he was out of line, I saw the nervous look on the manager’s face when he came out to investigate. I noted the silent customers. A thought had quickly crossed my mind: Gosh, I hope the guy doesn’t have a gun.

It’s unfortunate, yet that same thought might have crossed others’ minds, too.

 

 

 

 

 

Wheels up, David

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NPR photojournalist David Gilkey

NPR photojournalist David Gilkey sticks out his tongue and strikes a pose as he prepares to leave from Pittsburgh International Airport at 5:48 a.m. on Sunday, March 6, 2016. Gilkey was the opening night speaker at the Welcome a Stranger Journalism Conference and Multimedia Workshop at Allegheny College March 3-4 2016. Gilkey died on assignment in Helmand Province, Afghanistan on June 5, 2016. Photo by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2016, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Outside the Box, by Cheryl Hatch. Copyright 2016

Wheels up.

My friend David Gilkey sent me a text as he left Washington, D.C. last March. He’d already posted a photo of sunrise from his plane window as he sat at the gate waiting to taxi to takeoff.

David spoke and wrote in short, efficient phrases. Understood. Roger that. He’d covered the military for years and the precision and cadence stuck.

When I’d written him months earlier to invite him to speak at Allegheny College, he responded, “I’m in.”

David did not give many public lectures. He came because I asked him. He came because he’s my friend. He came because he said he would, despite the fact that he’d only just returned from three weeks on assignment for National Public Radio in scorched, ravaged South Sudan.

David was the keynote speaker on March 4, 2016, at our “Welcome the Stranger” journalism conference and multimedia workshop.

Three months later, on June 5, 2016, the Taliban killed David and his Afghan translator and friend, Zabihullah Tamanna, near Marjah in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

David and I had known each other since college. We both worked on our student daily newspaper. We both wanted to be photojournalists.

After college, I went overseas first. I went into conflict first—the civil war in Liberia. David followed and then, over the years, surpassed me. We worked in some of the same places—Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan. But we were never in the same place at the same time.

And when I eventually opted out of covering conflict, David hit his stride. In his youth, his anger, in part, drove him. As he matured, it was his indignation and resolve to witness; and, through his photographs, show the world the entire spectrum of what he’d witnessed. Depravity. Death. Joy. Resilience. Love.

David first visited Allegheny College via Skype. He was the subject of the news writing students’ interview for their final exam in December 2014. While he was talking with the students, he asked for a moment to take a call. He returned and finished the interview. He remained available for the students’ questions throughout the three-hour exam.

I had a question. Gilkey, what was the call? It was a notification: our friend and fellow photojournalist, Michel duCille, had died of a heart attack on assignment covering the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.

David was the first person I called when I started planning my trip to Liberia, scheduled for later that December. He’d already been one of the first journalists on the ground in Liberia and he’d traveled to Sierra Leone and Guinea to cover the epidemic. I asked for his advice.

Rubber boots, David said. Take rubber boots. And don’t get close, Cheryl. It can kill you.

David knew the risks of his work. He accepted them and mitigated them to the best of his ability. He wasn’t reckless by nature though he did love a good shot of adrenaline: downhill skiing, scuba diving. And covering conflict and natural disasters.

In March, we had four hours before we’d return to the airport to collect Carrie Kahn, another speaker and NPR correspondent in Mexico City. We headed to Primanti Brothers in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. David’s idea. He knew more about the city than I did and I’d be in Pennsylvania nearly four years. We ate the classic sandwich with fries wedged between the slices of bread. At David’s memorial service in July in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, his friends told stories of his love of food, from “street meat” to fine dining in pricey, celebrated restaurants.

That was David. He enjoyed the fine things in life: a pair of hand-stitched leather boots and first-class travel. And he could live in the most grim and challenging conditions. He could sleep in the dirt and cold and go for weeks without a shower.

When David and I met, we wouldn’t share war stories. On our last visit, we talked about our aging parents and our concern and love for them. We talked about our Humpty-Dumpty hearts, each shattered by a beloved. A sanctuary and sacred trust violated. For both of us, the betrayal marked a profound wounding and trauma that pierced us to our core and persisted.

David spoke about his work and legacy. He had a keen desire to see the bulk and span of his work in Afghanistan edited, collected, shared and preserved. David had traveled to Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. He humped through the country with Marines and soldiers at least once a year, often more, throughout the entire 14-year war, the longest in American history. He was committed to the story. And he died covering it, long after the gaze of the public and media had turned away.

He showed me photographs on his phone of his new home in D.C. It was a beautiful space, a photographer’s home, full of windows and light. My house is your house, Cheryl. You’re welcome any time, even if I’m not there. I told him I’d come see him as soon as he got back.

I was home sick and wide-awake the night of June 3, 2016. It would have been June 4 already in Afghanistan. On an impulse, I sent David a text, must have been the fever. I had no idea if it’d reach him. He responded immediately.

I was still in bed the next day when Carrie Kahn called me, sobbing. David’s dead.

Later, I checked my phone to see if I’d written “I love you” in that last text. I hadn’t.

I know I said it at the airport three months earlier. Since David’s death, I make a point to say I love you to friends and family, when I finish a phone call or part company. Some were uncomfortable with it at first. “It’s my tribute to David,” I would offer and they would understand.

Last March, we needed to leave Meadville at 3:30 a.m. for his 7 a.m. flight. You don’t need to take me, Cheryl. Get some hung-over student to drive me there. No way. I insisted.

We arrived bleary-eyed and laughing at 5:45 a.m. It wasn’t a long good-bye. David grabbed his bags. I grabbed a selfie. We hugged. I told him I’d see him in D.C.

With my phone, I snapped a couple frames of David in the dim light in front of the departure terminal. He kicked up his leg, stuck out his tongue. And left.

Wheels up, David.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/columns/outside-the-box-i-love-you-tribute-to-friend-killed/article_7d68b5c8-c179-11e6-b064-ab17766afd1e.html

Practice what we prize

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By Cheryl Hatch/Copyright 2016

 

“Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

 

When student journalists put the final fall issue of the college newspaper to bed last December, I breathed a sigh of relief. Incredibly, we’d made it through the semester without any threats. Challenges, yes. Threats, no.

 

They published their last issue for this academic year on Friday, April 29, 2016. We celebrated another award-winning year—and a full year unmarred by threats.

I’m the adviser for the student newspaper. I am also a career journalist who’s covered conflict in the Middle East and Africa. I came to the college in 2012 after completing assignments in Afghanistan.

 

In a decade of covering conflict, I’ve dealt with threats. I never expected to encounter threats on a small college campus.

 

In my first year as adviser, a student journalist wrote an article about a sex education workshop that generated some controversy—and threats, many from fellow students. Some of the threats were anonymous, through social media; others through the grapevine. Some threats implied bodily harm. The student’s mother said she was coming to remove her daughter from campus out of fear for her safety.

 

I spoke with the student’s mother, the counseling center and campus security. The dean of students joined the conversation. The student did not return to her dorm room that weekend. She stayed in a secure location with friends.

 

Another story reported the arrests of two students on multiple drug charges. After this story published, a group of students stormed the newsroom, shouting and throwing things. One of the frightened student journalists had 9-1-1 keyed on her cell phone. When another student journalist was walking across campus with a stack of newspapers for delivery, a passing student asked if she worked for the paper. She said yes, and the student spit on her.

 

After a story last year, a student was singled out in her class, bullied and intimidated solely for her participation on the newspaper. Despite the stress she felt in class, she didn’t file a complaint. She feared reprisal and further harassment. She feared her grade might suffer. I checked in with her in person or by text after nearly every class.

 

In the spring of 2015, a student objected to an opinion piece about snow removal. He wrote a lengthy, angry, threatening email to the student writer then later to the editors. He demanded the opinion piece be removed and he wanted an apology, though he was not the subject of the piece.

 

The student journalists offered the appropriate recourse for the aggrieved student. They told him that he could write a letter to the editor or his own guest column. He didn’t. He continued to intimidate the staff, primarily through email until one night he came into the newsroom uninvited and hovered over an editor.

 

I spoke with the counseling center multiple times and campus security. I discussed the situation with the student editors and they decided they would try to work through it before they asked the counseling center and administrators to intervene.

Next, I was called into a meeting and learned the angry student had filed a complaint against me. He was threatening legal action.

 

I explained the emails, the escalating, out-of-proportion behavior and the course of action I’d taken. I expressed my genuine concern for the safety and wellbeing of the student journalists and myself. The administrators blamed me for not meeting with the student. I said that I would not meet with a student who had threatened other students.

The student journalists handed over all the emails and explained their concerns. We were sure that would be the end of it.

 

I was called into another meeting and asked to sign a no-contact order, indicating that I would have no contact with the student. I didn’t understand. What is it? And why would I sign a no-contact order for a student with whom I’ve had no contact? Will he sign an order to have no contact with the student journalists and me? I declined to sign a no-contact order.

 

In the last meeting, the administrators told me the student had said I was harassing and following him, making him uncomfortable. I said that’s simply impossible since I didn’t know him. Noting details revealed in the conversation, I realized that the student knew my schedule and routine and he was following and observing me.

 

The administrators said they found him credible. I found a lawyer.

 

I followed my attorney’s advice. I wrote an “in-case-anything-should-happen-to-me” letter, tucked it in a drawer and informed a trusted friend of its content and my situation. She encouraged me to trust my intuition.

 

I stopped returning to my office at night. I changed my schedule and routine. We changed the open-door policy at the newsroom. The door now remains shut and locked when students are working.

 

On the advice of my attorney, I did not attend our college’s bicentennial graduation last May. I didn’t see students I’d come to respect and cherish, including several members of the newspaper staff, celebrate their accomplishments. I didn’t get to meet their families and pose for photographs. I left town.

 

After the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon last fall, my friend texted me: I couldn’t help but think of you spring semester.

 

Our college has a statement of community that offers students and employees “an inclusive, respectful and safe residential learning community that will actively confront and challenge racism, sexism, heterosexism, religious bigotry, and other forms of harassment and discrimination.”

 

I have not experienced this community.

It’s said that if students are going to be journalists, they should get used to criticism and learn to weather the tough spots. That’s true. A career in journalism will require a thick skin. As the late, iconic White House reporter Helen Thomas said: “We don’t go into journalism to be popular. It is our job to seek the truth and put constant pressure on our leaders until we get answers.”

 

It’s one thing for someone to object to a story in the college newspaper; it’s another to cross the line into bullying and threats. I want people to remember that the student journalists are first and foremost students. They are entitled to the rights and protections in their learning environment as outlined in the statement of community.

 

I understand this abusive intolerance is not unique to our campus. It’s become part of our political polemics. It’s voiced nationally and globally. We need to address the problem.

College is a place to learn to think critically and speak freely. Our college offers an annual prize of Civility in Public Life. Practicing civility on our campus would be a good start.

Let’s create a class that teaches students how to read the news and respond respectfully. Let’s learn to offer criticism without condemnation. Let’s teach students how to disagree without hurling toxic language, accusations and threats.

 

I’ve been warned that speaking up about these incidents could have repercussions. I also know I am a journalist and an educator. I teach in a newsroom and a classroom. I teach by example.

 

I will no longer be silent.

 

And I will attend graduation this year.

 

Note: This column was first published on The Huffington Post on May 5, 2016.

My mother is strong, fierce—and fragile

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Outside the Box, a column by Cheryl Hatch/copyright 2016

I am not a mother.

I have not known the joy of bringing a life into this world or the pain of watching my child leave it.

As a photographer, I have witnessed a birth in a home on a farm in Ohio. I stood in that scared, translucent space where love and new life mingle, as a child slipped from his mother’s womb into his father’s waiting hands.

In a hospital in Somalia, I have been in that equally sacred space where life slips away on one last breath. In Iraq, I watched a Kurdish mother caress the dirt over her infant’s grave, running her fingers through the soil the way she might have one day run her fingers through her daughter’s curls.

My mother’s mother did not want her to marry my father. She feared she’d waste the college education purchased so dearly just a few decades after the Great Depression. My mother, usually the good girl, defied her mother and married my father. “I love him,” she said.

Dad graduated a year ahead of my mother with a commission in the U.S. Army. He flew back from overseas for their June wedding. There would be no honeymoon. Dad had to be at his station and the Army wouldn’t pay for Mom’s ticket. They saved their quarters, literally, so the bride could purchase a plane ticket and accompany her husband to their new home.

Mom got settled in a room above the barn in a German farmhouse and Dad promptly left for the field. At 21, my mother was alone; an ocean away from the small island where she’d lived her entire life. No friends. No family. And no German language skills.

Soon mom was pregnant with me.

There would be five children—one who did not survive. 26 moves. Twenty-six times my mother would pack and unpack an entire household, usually alone. Dad was either already at his next post, in the field or away at war.

When my father left for his second tour in Vietnam, my mother was still in her twenties, with four children, my youngest brother not yet 1 year old.

When I look back, I marvel at how my mother held it all together. I think sometimes she didn’t.

My mother did not have a home of her own again until she was nearly 50. But she made do and made a home each and every day for my often-absent soldier father and their four children.

Mom grew up at a time when women had two career choices: teacher or nurse. My mom wanted to be a physical education teacher. That course of studies would have cost more money, so my mother became an elementary school teacher.

My mom is athletic and as competitive as they come. She played basketball and volleyball in high school. She came of age before Title IX and the opportunities it offered girls and women, so she set sports aside in college.

She played tennis when she could, until her back had other plans. She took up golf at 50. She’s had a couple hole-in-ones. And even now, when she’s putting well, she can score in the mid-40s for nine holes.

She started piano lessons in her late 60s. She writes poems. She’ll wake up in the middle of the night and put pen to paper. Every once in a while, I’ll get an envelope in the mail with a poem my mom wrote for me.

My mother is smart and tough and gifted with languages. She’s athletic and adventurous. She has an artist’s soul. She’s thoughtful and kind—to a degree that can leave her wounded by the thoughtlessness of others.

I have discovered that I am my mother’s daughter.

I rowed crew at a Division I university and earned a Pac-10 championship. I am a writer and photographer. I have traveled the world.

It’s no accident that in my work I have quietly raged against the patriarchal systems that suppress, stifle and dismiss women. The military. Journalism. Now academia.

Early in my career, I focused my camera and energy on women and children who had been displaced, caught in the crossfire of the men who made war and made the decisions.

Like my mother, I have been too nice. Too polite. Unfailingly thoughtful and long-suffering. To the detriment of my spirit and health.

Like my mother, later in my life, I have found my voice. I have given myself permission to speak my mind and my truth. Now, as an educator, I encourage other women to find and use their voices and talents.

When someone asks me where I’m from, I’m always challenged to find an accurate answer. One of my brothers says planet earth.

I have no home in the traditional sense. There’s the place I was born. The place I live now. The place I’ve lived the longest.

There has been one constant in my peripatetic life, my mother. The one fixed point in my moving life. She has held it—and us—together these many years.

My mother is strong, fierce—and fragile. I suspect all mothers are.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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Walking a fine line

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Outside the Box, a column by Cheryl Hatch/copyright 2016

Allegheny College is losing a treasure this week.

Director of Campus Communications Kathy Roos retires on April 29, 2016, after 19 years of service.

When I first met Kathy four years ago, I joked with her. You work for the dark side, I said. Public relations and journalism use the same skills for distinctly different objectives. Both tell stories. Sometimes we’re on the same page. Sometimes we’re not.

In my career as a professional journalist, I’ve encountered many public relations professionals who assume an adversarial or hostile approach to members of the media with whom they need to work. I can think of software giants who hire entire firms to craft their image and message, complete with stylists and wordsmiths who want to manage press conferences and photo opportunities. Politicians, the United States military, sports teams and colleges and universities all have public relations professionals on the payroll to help members of the media see things their way.

Kathy and I have both been around long enough that we realize that a working relationship can be built on respect and professionalism without thwarting our separate—and often disparate­—objectives.

In the four years I’ve had the privilege to work with Kathy at Allegheny, she’s been nothing but a pro—and unceasingly kind.

I often gauge people by the way they treat students, particularly student journalists at The Campus newspaper.

Kathy reads the student newspaper and has sent email messages complimenting the students on stories. I pass these messages to the students, where they serve as a kind of salve on the sting of remarks and rebukes they also receive.

This is an indication of a consummate communications pro. She can do her job while working with and respecting members of the media.

Last year, Sam Stephenson and Meghan Hayman won first place in the Society of Professional Journalists Region 1 Mark of Excellence Awards. This was a first for The Campus and a high achievement. The students earned the award for their coverage of the Kirk Nesset arrest.

Kathy wrote the press release and didn’t go into the details of the story that won the award. She highlighted the students’ accomplishment without citing the title of the news story, which would have brought renewed, potentially negative attention to the college.

In August 2013, Kathy responded to a request from community members and The Campus. A number of Meadville residents asked if the paper could include notices of campus events so they could attend. Kathy began compiling a weekly calendar of events at Allegheny College, which now fills a third of a news page in The Campus each week.

Two weeks ago, the student journalists hosted a surprise farewell party for Kathy in the newsroom, complete with balloons, cards and pizza. Christina Bryson, the editor-in-chief, offered her a prized Campus coffee mug, a gift of gratitude and respect.

Kathy, in turn, offered her congratulations to the students on their 2016 awards and commended them on their improved coverage.

I wrote part of this column Monday morning in the Market House Grille. I looked up to see a man tucked under a ball cap at a table next to the big frig. He was reading The Campus and I watched him study the page with the calendar of events.

Thank you, Kathy.

Since I arrived at Allegheny College, my goal has been to raise an awareness and understanding of journalism and its role on campus and in our community and democracy. I believe Kathy and I have been partners in this endeavor. We know and respect the limits of the partnership and honor the instances when we can collaborate.

Kathy attended every Ida Tarbell birthday party The Campus staff hosted. She wrote excellent releases for all the journalism in the public interest and Campus events, particularly our annual journalism conference and multimedia workshop. She wrote press releases that served faculty, staff and students from all parts of the Allegheny community.

Her good work brought local, regional and national media attention to the college.

Most mornings I look out my kitchen window and see Kathy and her husband of 42 years, Bob, walking to campus, often hand-in-hand. Bob, a professor of computer science, will retire, too.

On Monday morning, the smell of fresh-cut grass hung in the air as I backed my car out of the driveway. I saw Kathy and Bob walking down the brick road.

I stopped the car and jumped out. Not many more days, I called to Kathy.

She held up her right hand, showing five fingers.

I crashed their morning walk for a short distance, savoring a few moments of conversation.

I will miss Kathy Roos. The Campus journalists will miss her.

She walked the fine line between our two worlds with professionalism, dedication and respect. And she always walked that line with a gentle reverence for the integrity of words and importance of impeccable communication.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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In troubled times, language can divide or bind us

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Outside the Box, a  column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2015

When I was in teenager, my father announced at dinner one night that we’d be moving to Saudi Arabia. I didn’t know where Saudi Arabia was, but I wanted to go. After the meal, I went downstairs and pulled out an atlas and found the large desert country on the other side of the world.

I couldn’t wait to go. I wanted a change and an adventure. I parted with my beloved Ford Mustang, which I had purchased with my hard-earned fast-food and waitressing wages. We landed in Riyadh and I discovered we had moved to a country where women were banned from driving.

The dictates of the culture and laws of the land clipped my teenage wings and quashed the independence I’d enjoyed in America. I couldn’t leave the house on my own. I had to be with a male companion—my father or one of my younger brothers.

I was both frustrated and enchanted with my new home. I loved the vast desert landscape with its hidden wadis and rolling dunes, the Bedouin traditions of hospitality, the history, the bustling ancient suqs. And the language.

I left Saudi Arabia to attend college in rain-soaked Oregon. I had decided to become a foreign correspondent, so I majored in journalism and French. I studied Russian as my second language. It was a different time; Arabic wasn’t offered.

When I graduated, I went to Cairo to begin my journalism career. I have a knack for languages and I picked up the Egyptian dialect by ear—in the streets, the markets, taxis. I worked with a tutor to improve my understanding. My Arabic served me well in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Egypt; but, it was conversational at best and I dreamed of being fluent.

My second year at Allegheny, the college began its Arabic program and hired a professor of Arabic and invited a Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant, both named Reem. I asked Reem Hilal, the professor, if I could sit in on classes.

Ahlan wa sahlan. You are welcome.

Both women assured me I belonged in intermediate Arabic. I wasn’t so sure. I spoke colloquial Arabic, but I could barely read or write it. Plus, we’d be studying classical Arabic, al-fusha.

My vocabulary carried me for a while. I soon learned being a student and being a student as a professor are two different things. When I was a student, I spent hours on my studies of French and Russian. I attended my language labs and conversation tables. As a professor, students come first; my own class comes last. I told Professor Hilal I needed to start over in beginning Arabic.

I love being a student. It reconnects me to what it feels like to be facing the front of the classroom rather than facing the class. As a student, I still get nervous when the professor calls on me to write on the board. I feel badly when I don’t do my homework.

I get to witness the stress of the students. After one exam, I walked into a gathering of classmates outside Ruter Hall. They were talking rapid-fire, a few smoking cigarettes. They were giddy with relief that they’d made it through the midterm. It made me remember the remarkable pressure to perform that students impose on themselves. I was once that student, minus the cigarette. Now I walk out smiling if I’m able to finish the exam.

In learning a language, I’ve found I learn about the people who speak it and their culture. I also learn about my culture and myself.

When I was a student in France, I quickly realized that I could translate my English into French and still miscommunicate by missing the nuances of the words, body language and culture. Americans are generally an exuberant, happy-ending-loving, bordering-on-hyberbolic people. We love words like amazing, awesome, fantastic. If it’s cold outside, I might say it’s freezing. Il ne fait pas chaud, it’s not hot, is the likely French rendering of the same weather.

As I was finishing this column, I ran into Salah Algabli, a Yemeni who is the current Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant at Allegheny. I asked him if he had a few minutes to talk about learning a language.

Sure, when you hear a language, you will get to know the people, the culture and, sometimes, the faith, Salah said. Learning a language helps you understand the deeper meaning of the words. You learn how to understand and express happiness, sadness, gratitude, friendship.

In Yemen, there’s an expression, taht al rasa, or al rasa, Salah said. It literally means “under the head,” however, if a stranger came to a village and said al rasa to the chief, it truly means “I am under your protection,” a cry for sanctuary that the villagers are bound to honor.

Salah noted that when he first came to America he would start his conversations with questions, as he would in his homeland. How are you? How’s your family? How are your children? He realized people would look at him strangely.

They felt like I’m a creepy person, Salah said. What might be creepy in America would be considered rude if he didn’t do it in his country. In Arab cultures, it’s expected to make such extended inquiries into the health of friends and loved ones.

Salah said he’s learned the American equivalent. “What’s up?” He now asks that one simple question.

The other day I heard a piece on National Public Radio by Michel Martin, entitled “Grief Knows No Native Tongue—but We Must Listen, Whenever It Speaks.” She wrote it in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. She noted that on the same Friday that members of the Islamic State group launched the attacks in Paris, a bomb killed people at midday prayers in Yemen and a suicide attack at a Baghdad funeral killed at least 18 people. There were two attacks in Beirut that killed more than 40 people last Thursday.

These attacks killed people indiscriminately, regardless of language, faith, nationality, gender or age.

In troubled times, language can divide or bind us.

When I think of the victims of violence, including the refugees, I remember the expression Salah taught me.

Taht al rasa. I am under your protection.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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