Each semester, a recent major in French and Francophone Studies will be featured.
To initiate the Student Profile this fall, Leila dal Santo who graduated in 2010. Her senior honors thesis (directed by Prof. Anne F. Garréta): “Deux Langues, Deux Mondes? —Une étude de la situation littéraire actuelle de l’écrivain maghrébin bilingue”. She was awarded the first James Rolleston Prize for Best Literary Honors Thesis written in a Foreign Languge. This academic year she has begun the doctoral program in Public Health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, focusing on the Middle East and North Africa.
What work are you doing that involves the French-speaking world?
We may live in a world where Google Translate and similar devices ostensibly render mastery of a foreign language nonessential, but such tools inevitably fall short in situations that warrant fluid, uninhibited face-to-face exchange. Simultaneous interpretation equipment could only go so far, for example, when I traveled to Morocco last fall and to Tunisia this spring on behalf of Souktel Inc., a startup in Ramallah, Palestine that designs and delivers mobile phone services to connect aid organizations with communities in need. In November 2012, I spent two days in Rabat at the State Department-sponsored TechCamp, working with Maghreb civil society organizations to explore how low-cost technology solutions could address the challenges surrounding youth employment in the MENA region. My competency in French allowed me to engage freely in discussions with my Maghreb peers outside the presentations and panel sessions. My rapport with my Moroccan peers evolved over the course of the camp, and in a true reflection of “Moroccan hospitality,” a group of peers invited me to spend the weekend in their native Fes. Meandering the winding streets of the old city with five dynamic tour guides, sharing in a family Friday couscous, circumventing the laborious task of bargaining for trinkets (my friends knew all the artisans in town)—these experiences cannot be generated using a translation app.
How did your thesis – research and writing — prepare you for this work?
As a Project Manager at Souktel, many of my projects required near-daily use of either French or Arabic in order to help aid organizations implement initiatives ranging from youth workforce development in Egypt and health data collection in Vanuatu to SMS crop price and irrigation information services in Morocco. When the Arab Spring gave way to groundbreaking democratic elections in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in 2011 and 2012, Souktel had the privilege of being on the ground during some of the region’s most crucial votes. It was an exciting but difficult period for Arab citizens. As many voters had never taken part in elections, questions abounded: What exactly are the rules for voting? Where’s my nearest polling station? But amid this uncertainty, one truth rang clear: with mobile penetration close to 100% in all three countries—an 87.1% penetration rate in Egypt, 171.5% penetration rate in Libya, and 106% penetration rate in Tunisia—cell phones had strong potential to help ensure that these landmark elections were free and fair. Leveraging the speed, security, and cost-effectiveness of mobile phones, Souktel facilitated election opinion polls in Libya, election-day SMS incident reporting in Tunisia, and post-election ‘exit surveys’ in Egypt. In March, I presented these case studies in Tunis at ElecTech, a conference that brought together election observation groups and technologists to learn about different observation approaches and new tools that could be adapted and applied during upcoming elections in Lebanon and Tunisia. French and Arabic were indispensible during post-conference discussions with Lebanese and Tunisian counterparts—my fluency helped transcend cultural differences and allowed us to identify areas for possible collaboration on pilot projects.
In what contexts has your spoken/written work in French been useful and significant?
While my year with Souktel has certainly honed my professional-level French speaking and writing skills, the reality is that since graduating from Duke in 2010, I’ve yet to face a shortage of opportunities to practice French. My roommates in Cambodia and Palestine were French and Belgian, respectively. I’ve enjoyed lively and informative conversations with these individuals on subjects ranging from the universal right to healthcare and the shortcomings of international aid work, to the basic tenets of European Green Party ideology. My advice to students who balk at the Duke foreign language requirement: don’t underestimate how those skills will shape your professional and personal journey.