Washington native teaches in Jordan

February 16, 2013
Elena Corbett, front row, fourth from right, three of her colleagues and students in the Diplomacy and Policy Studies program pose for a photo during a recent orientation event. Widad Qawar, a major collector of textiles and handicrafts of Bilad al-Sham (the Levant), hosted the group at her home for a presentation about women’s traditional dress, which varied greatly from region to region and village to village. Qawar then let members of the group take a photo wearing pieces from her collection, some of which dates to the mid-19th century.

With Iraq to its east, Syria to its north and Egypt and Israel’s West Bank to its west, Jordan is sandwiched within one of the most turbulent of the world’s neighborhoods.

That’s why it’s a little surprising to discover that the most pressing concern when it comes to hosting exchange students in Jordan’s capital Amman is … the traffic.

“I’m not kidding,” said Elena Corbett, a 1994 graduate of Washington High School and, starting this academic year, the resident director of the Council for International Education Exchange Study Center in Amman.

“This is the stuff that keeps me up at night … both their safety as pedestrians and their safety as passengers in buses and taxis.”

Corbett is something of an old pro, in fact, when it comes to Jordan. The 36-year-old Corbett holds a doctorate from the University of Chicago, specializing in the history of the modern Middle East. She and her husband, Joey Corbett, who is on the staff of the Biblical Archaeology Society, have been shuttling back and forth to Jordan since 1996 as they’ve worked on dissertation research, and they also lived in Cairo for a year.

“I find Jordanian history in particular really compelling because so many people don’t,” Corbett explained via email earlier this month. “There are popular, scholarly and policy narratives about it that say pretty much the same thing, and it involves kings, Bedouins and camels and then some angry people who are against them. And these are very uncomplicated understandings of context that frankly don’t serve anyone very well.”

In Amman, Corbett is in charge of “the whole caboodle”: She administers the academic programs and oversees faculty and staff. Last semester, 150 students from colleges and universities were enrolled in the program, and about 130 are participating this semester. The program in Jordan is one of 175 CIEE has around the world and it emphasizes goal-setting, both personally and academically. Corbett hopes students leave Jordan “appreciating the complexities and nuances … that they can’t make generalizations.”

Corbett’s father, Robert Dodge, is a professor in the history department at Washington & Jefferson College who specializes in European and Russian history and, according to Corbett, “I wouldn’t be where I am had I not grown up in an environment where international travel and foreign languages were viewed and valued unquestioningly as part of one’s education. Growing up around the W&J community, it was just normal to see faculty leading students all over the world while foreign students were always welcomed.”

“As a father and an academician, I’m obviously very proud of her,” Dodge said. He pointed out that Corbett is fluent in Arabic and “she can deal with any subject very well in the Arab language.”

Along with her teaching duties in Jordan, Corbett is polishing a long-gestating book on archaeology and narratives of history and identity in both Palestine and Jordan, and has another research project in mind once the book is completed.

Before starting work in Jordan, Corbett taught in the history department at Penn State’s Erie campus. Whether or not she returns permanently to America and gets back on the tenure track, Corbett is uncertain.

“I’m enjoying what I’m doing right now, I feel like I’m doing something important, I feel valued and I’m building a very important skill set and gaining experiences that are opening possibilities I could have never imagined.”

Brad Hundt came to the Observer-Reporter in 1998 after stints at newspapers in Georgia and Michigan. Brad holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from George State University in Atlanta, Ga., and a master’s in popular culture studies from Bowling Green (Ohio) State University. He has covered the arts and entertainment for the O-R, and also worked as a municipal beat reporter. He now serves as editorial page editor.

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