This is the third 2018 Hendersonville Student Ambassador profile in a series of five monthly spotlights published in the Times-News.
Amman, Jordan, doesn’t seem like a destination most American college students would visit the last summer before their senior y
ear. Then again, Maggie McKenzie isn’t your average college student.
Double-majoring in French and Arabic at UNC–Chapel Hill, 21-year-old McKenzie is spending nine weeks of her last summer as a college student taking advanced intensive Arabic language studies at Qasid Arabic Institute in Amman.
That means three hours of class time plus an additional hour of private tutoring a day, five days a week.
“The intention of the program is to be a normal academic year’s worth of study crammed into nine weeks,” McKenzie said.
She began studying French while a student at East Henderson High, and launched into Arabic the first semester of her college career, since she knew so much of the Arab world is also French speaking.
“Not a lot of people immediately connect the French and Arabic languages, but there’s actually a really, really strong history going back to the 19th century – when a huge portion of the Middle East was colonized by France,” said McKenzie. “Now in France today, because of that colonial history, there is a huge immigrant population from mostly these North African Arab countries. Both sides still feel like they have strong ties to each other.”
McKenzie also knows fluency in Arabic is high in demand given the current political climate, and she hopes to use her voice to build connections.
“There is a pervasive and bitter narrative that prevails today which says that the Middle East and America are at odds with one another, that the differences between our cultures are irreconcilable and that we lack a common understanding,” McKenzie said. “I maintain that this has never been true, is not true, and cannot be true if we want to play a meaningful role in world politics – or, simpler than that – we want to respect one another on a human level.”
While at Chapel Hill, McKenzie has been strengthening the human connection by working with a Syrian refugee family in Durham, helping to teach the mother English, assisting the daughters with homework, and serving as a friendly guide to American living.
McKenzie is continuing her role as an American and North Carolinian ambassador while in Jordan, where she’s also being careful to respect cultural norms. Though she said the country is pretty liberal and is accustomed to Westerners and their fashions, McKenzie has a new modest, lightweight wardrobe that keeps her covered to her elbows and ankles in 100-degree heat.
“I really put a high value on blending well and being respectful of the culture,” she said.
Regardless of what she’s wearing, McKenzie practices person-to-person diplomacy – which she hopes to turn into a career.
She said, “I really hope to either end up doing NGO work and continue making these welcome connections with people,” perhaps with refugees. She said she’s also interested in potentially working for the U.S. Department of State because, “I do still have a lot of faith in the ability of public institutions to do good.”
McKenzie said she feels blessed to have grown up in “enchanted” Hendersonville with its kind people and close-knit community – but also realizes her worldview was narrow until she’d stepped beyond state lines and country codes. She said she wants to encourage her peers to explore their surroundings and immerse themselves in new cultures.
“This is the time in our lives when I think we’re most free, and we are also not quite set in our ways,” McKenzie said. “We are definitely still developing … and forming our opinions. And I think that can be massively influenced by going out and seeing the world right now.”
And, she added, “I think this is the best place on earth, and everybody needs to come here – so we need to go out and tell them about it.”