May 16th, 2012
Hoda Grant is a well known figure on campus, and one of the friendliest people you’re likely to meet on campus or elsewhere. Earlier this year, Hoda was awarded the AUC Excellence in Academic Service Award for a long list of contributions, of which her work on the First Year Experience (FYE) Program is perhaps the most famous. Recently, she was named Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies: in some ways a new challenge, but in other ways an extension of her many years of close work with our undergraduate students. In this interview, Hoda shares her thoughts about AUC (which she has experienced as both student and faculty). She also speaks about her student years at Port Said Language School in Zamalek, under the legendary iron headmistress Mary Salama. Finally, we hear about Hoda’s doctoral work at Rice University on the playwright Lillian Hellman.
Q: Perhaps I could begin by asking about your family name. “Grant” sounds English rather than Egyptian. Is there an interesting family history here?
A: I am always asked this question. “Is Grant your maiden or husband’s family name?” Well, it is my father’s name, who was born in Assyut in Upper Egypt. I guess my grandfather gave my father this name after one of the protestant missionaries who used to live in Assyut at that time. I used to adore my late father that is why I chose to be known by his name not my grandfather’s name, whom I did not know. Many times I joke and say maybe I have some American or British origins and I might be one way related to the famous Carey Grant or possibly Hugh Grant!
Q: Let’s start with the background to your receiving the AUC Excellence in Academic Service Award last February. One of the referees for your nomination wrote as follows: “For most students and for many faculty Dr. Grant represents everything that is best about the University’s Core Curriculum… I believe that Dr. Grant is one of the four or five people at this university who are most fully committed to ensuring that our undergraduate students receive the education that we say we want them to receive.” Focusing on the students in particular, what do you think you’re doing that they appreciate so much?
A: SMILE. They appreciate the treatment and I enjoy the company of students in my office and in my classes. When they come to my office to discuss a problem or to get advised on courses or career options, they feel care, acceptance, respect and dignity. I simply see my own sons in each and every student and treat them like adults and so I reason, laugh and often have fun with them. There is something special inside each one of us, be it a student, faculty or staff and we have to look for what is positive and project it. I have a plaque with a teacher’s prayer engraved on it saying, “Let wisdom guide my heart, and help me keep in mind that each and every student is a precious one of a kind.” I read it quite often and pray for wisdom because in a way it sums up how as administrators and teachers we should act and see our own AUC students, as precious human beings who deserve the best.
Q: You were the first head of AUC’s First Year Experience (FYE Program), which was viewed across campus as badly needed and long overdue. By the time I taught in this program myself, in 2008, it already gave the impression of being streamlined and organized. But there must have been a colossal amount of labor to get it to that point. Could you share some thoughts (and even stories) about what it was like to start the FYE program from scratch?
I can spend pages and hours writing about FYE but I cannot do it here and before speaking about the “colossal amount of labor to get it to that point” as you mentioned in your question, I would like to acknowledge the tremendous effort that the former dean of students Jan Montassir, the founder and proposal writer of FYE, had exerted in making FYE a dream come true for AUC. She also headed a great team in 2005 who helped push forward this initiative. This team was made up of my dear friend, mentor, supporter and colleague Amany Elshimi, who recommended me to be the director of FYE to President David Arnold and Tim Sullivan, Professor Hanadi Salem, and Associate Dean Mohamed Dabbour.
I cannot forget how my former boss and mentor Dr. John Swanson was extremely supportive and positive and provided me with valuable advice, and Vice President Ashraf El Fiqi who backed me all the way and advised me to start by setting a steering committee of top administrators, faculty and staff members who believed in the mission of FYE. I remember in the first summer before the inauguration of FYE many told me there is no way our pampered AUC students would leave the North Coast and Marina to come all the way to attend a four-day program: “you are just dreaming and you will be lucky if you get a 100 students.” At first I was irritated but decided not to listen to any negativism and kept on telling myself, “when there is the Will there is The Way.” I believe when you are passionate and believe in something, put your heart and mind into it and work hard to make it happen, it happens, and so out of 932 students who were admitted to AUC in Fall 2006, 864 attended FYE, which was a great success. According to former Provost Tim Sullivan, since the inception of AUC, FYE is considered the biggest program/event because it is the only one that involved faculty, students and staff, with a total of almost 1100 people working in it.
I did not take one week off during the three months of the summer of 2006 because it was consumed by the start-up work of the program which involved recruiting faculty and peer leaders, preparing needed published materials and training faculty and peer leaders. It was the best summer ever because I spent it all working with the peer leaders in the hot months of June, July and August where we had lots of fun indoors and outdoors preparing all the classroom materials, class lists, social events, giveaways, and this was energizing and loaded with fun because I felt I was one of them. I guess when you work with students you always feel young. What was really rewarding was that we all worked as one family heading towards one goal: making a difference for the new students. Our reward was summed up by one of our FYE faculty describing our incoming class: “The first day, they looked scared and had the ‘deer-in-the-headlights look.’ But by the last day, they were laughing and joking around – much more comfortable.”
Q: Recently you were named Associate Dean of the Office of Undergraduate Studies. In what ways has your job changed as a result?
In essence my job has not changed, but many other tasks and new initiatives have been added to it. I was asked several times whether I will change the location of my office to a bigger one or not. I do not know why people usually anticipate that if one gets promoted then automatically he will change everything. I simply respond by saying “more duties,” but I will remain the same, will stay in my lovely plaza office, will still deal with students, will wear jeans and style my hair in its natural curly look in summer!
Q: What are some of the future plans of the Office of Undergraduate Studies that you can share with us?
Our first big project is inaugurating the academic advising center when completed. We hope to be able to put forth the recommendations of the Provost’s task force committee on improving advising, registration and mentoring in action through this center. Our second project is revamping the course offerings of the freshman year in order to provide a solid foundation of academic excellence for our freshman students. The vision, which I am quoting from our proposal, is to “foster, through collaborative institutional effort, a broad, intellectually-engaging learning experience in the freshman year, in which students develop life-long commitments to learning, research and service, and competencies in effective communication, critical thinking, and ethical discernment in diverse, multi-cultural environments.” The third project is to establish an honors program. Finally, we aim to consolidate and expand on the tasks and projects of the community based learning (CBL) program, and the undergraduate research initiative.
Q: In Bulletin interviews, we also like to go back in time and get a sense of the pre-AUC lives of our interviewees. You are a graduate of Port Said Language School in Zamalek, like quite a number of our faculty. Tell us about your memories of that school, which you attended at an interesting time in Egyptian history.
Port Said School (PSS) is located in the beautiful (and back then calm) Zamalek. I brag about being a Port Said School alumna, one of “the girls of PSS”- our school’s chant. PSS was the #1 English school in Cairo because of our very own headmistress, the renowned Mary Salama, who was a true educator, a lady of integrity, courage, and tact. When I remember PSS, I instantly remember Ms. Salama. She was my role model, the epitome of discipline, commitment and dignity. By her wisdom, experience and discernment, she was able to identify where my strengths lie, and so helped me find my interests in the field of humanities, and advised me to study arts although I was passionate about joining medical school. Because PSS was the number one school, the children of the late president Anwar El Sadat, the top dignitaries, ministers and ambassadors of the country all got their school education there. I want to add that Ms. Salama used to bring the parents of weak students to her office (including the top dignitaries of society) and give them a piece of her mind, and they would accept anything from her. She was revered by all and was described as the invincible iron lady.
Q: After earning your B.A. (with honors) at Cairo University, you took your M.A. from our very own American University in Cairo. Was that your first direct contact with AUC? And what are your memories of AUC from that period?
I wanted to join AUC as an undergraduate and I got accepted. But my father insisted that I get my BA degree from Cairo University, which I got with honors. I then decided to join AUC for my MA and make my dream come true. I followed the advice of my linguistics professor Dr. Saad Gamal and joined the TEFL program because “an MA in literature would not make a living!” As a faculty member I used to teach at Cairo University in the morning three days a week and teach evening classes as a part-time instructor in the English Studies Division of the School of Continuing Education known back then as the Division of Public Services. For me those were golden days as I was building my teaching career, and I felt fulfilled because I managed to put theory into practice and pay all my MA fees from my own meager salary.
Q: Your Ph.D. in American Literature was a joint degree between Cairo University and Rice University in Houston, Texas. I was unaware of such a program. What is the history of Cairo and Rice offering a joint Ph.D. degree? Or were you the only one who did that?
The scholarship I got was a grant by the Ministry of Higher Education usually given to national university junior faculty who wanted to pursue their doctoral studies abroad. I was recommended by my Ph.D thesis supervisor Dr. Huda Gendy, professor of American drama at Cairo University, to get two scholarships: the first was a three-month scholarship in 1987 to collect data at the American Research Center in Hyderabad, India, and the other was a two-year joint supervision scholarship to any U.S. university which I also got in 1989. I was married with two sons (a four-year-old and a nine-month-old) when I got the second scholarship. My husband was extremely supportive and encouraged me to go to Rice and come back with a dissertation. We had to split our greatest investment in our lives! I left the 4-year–old with his dad in Cairo and took the nine-month baby and my mother with me to Houston, Texas. I corresponded with five universities and the professor who was interested in the topic of my dissertation was professor Meredith Skura, a professor of American drama at Rice University. Dr. Gendy visited me at the end of the first year to see the progress of work and Dr. Skura came over to Cairo as a member of the thesis defense panel. By the grace of God and the support of my family, I got my Ph.D. with distinction in October 1991.
Q: The title of your doctoral thesis was “A Feminist Reading of the Plays of Lillian Hellman.” Hellman was well known as a figure of the American political Left. What made a feminist reading of her work such a new topic?
I chose to apply feminist criticism theories on Lillian Hellman’s eight plays because I was inspired by the memoirs, stamina, and character of this playwright. Feminist criticism was a new trend in the early eighties and I was challenged by applying the socio-economic, psychological, and existential feminist theories to her works and came up with a rereading of her plays from the feminist perspective. I read Karl Marx and socio-economic feminist theories, Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism, Simone de Beauvoir and feminism, Freud and psycho-feminist theories, along with many other feminist writers and playwrights. I was racing against time; I read many books and articles and managed to complete the first two chapters. I got a job in the English as a Second Language program at Rice because I felt I needed a breather, and by the end of the second year, I finished writing the whole thing except for the last chapter. I remember those great years and feel proud that I came back home with a two-year old son and a full-fledged six-chapter dissertation.
Q: Tell us something about your interests outside of AUC, especially if some of them are surprising for those who only know you on campus.
I studied translation for two years and translated around 20 American cantatas/musicals into Arabic for the church choir. As an academic, I serve on the board of directors of the Evangelical Theology Seminary of Cairo, an institute that graduates pastors. Because I like to serve people, I was at some point involved in organizing teaching training sessions for administrators and teachers of the schools in lower and upper Egypt. I pay regular weekly visits to a nursing home, talk with the senior citizens and give counseling sessions to the nurses and participate in fund raising events for the nursing home and an orphanage for girls in Abassia. I also help sustain the basic needs of families living in impoverished and extremely poverty-stricken hamlets in upper Egypt. We help install toilets, electricity and fresh water pipes in their homes, help them start their own micro-business by funding small projects for their sustainable development, help those who need to undergo surgery or get hospitalized, and establish small libraries for girls who know how to read but are not allowed to continue their school education.
Q: Everyone probably has one or two forks in the road where they could have made different career choices. What about you? Did you almost become something other than what you are now?
After getting my BA from Cairo University, I got an extremely lucrative job offer from my cousin who owned a successful business. He wanted me to be his executive assistant with a monthly pay of LE 400 and free trips to Europe and probably the whole world. Instead, I chose to work as a junior faculty at Cairo University with LE 80 per month. The difference was great; but I chose the narrow road and I am grateful and very much fulfilled.