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A Life of Purpose

  Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Elise Sjogren '11 loves teaching third grade at an American school for Palestinian children in East Jerusalem. “We use American curriculum and English instruction, but our students are all native Arabic-speaking Palestinians,” she says. “I teach my students the core subjects plus peace history and character training, all in English.” Additionally, students take Arabic and Hebrew classes from other teachers at the school.


An English major who minored in both leadership and religious studies, Sjogren participated in the President’s Leadership Program, Honors Program, Arabic Club, Phi Mu sorority and InterVarsity at Christopher Newport. She originally planned to remain in East Jerusalem for one year and then pursue a master’s degree back in the states. at one year soon became four, and the CNU experience helped prepare Sjogren to live and work overseas. “I studied in Oxford after my freshman year and then spent a semester in Prague during my sophomore year. These travels greatly opened my mind to lifestyles and cultures different than my own and stimulated my interest in the world,” she notes.

A program in Bethlehem, West Bank, following her junior year planted the seed for her work. “It was through that summer program that my interest in Palestine was solidified and I found this school. Although I didn’t study education, I am grateful for the way my college career influenced me, particularly by offering so many rich opportunities to grow as a whole individual,” Sjogren says.

Faculty members also had a significant influence on her. “It was my relationships with particular professors that made the biggest difference in my experience. Their genuine, enduring interest, their support, their encouragement – it’s a powerful thing to feel someone believes in you and is willing to give time to you,” she says.

Before becoming a Captain, Sjogren met Dr. Jay Paul, Honors Program Director, at a prospective student event. “Little did I know I’d still be friends with him eight years later! Dr. Paul orchestrated my involvement in the Honors Program and was a constant source of encouragement in my life,” she says. To this day he remains one of her staunchest supporters.

Dr. Quentin Kidd in the Department of Government – now vice provost for undergraduate education – facilitated her Oxford experience. Although she never took a course with him, he remained a cherished adviser throughout college. “From the beginning, Dr. Kidd believed in me more than I believed in myself,” Sjogren notes. “He constantly urged me to apply for distinguished scholarships and encouraged my interests in the Middle East. He made time to meet with me and other students o campus and has continued to be an important mentor.”

And thanks to Dr. Jean Filetti, Department of English Chair, Sjogren completed her most influential college assignment following her summer in Bethlehem – an English capstone course on Trauma in Literature. For this class, she wrote about the trauma of exile for Palestinians. “I had never researched a topic with such interest and found it so meaningful,” she says. “Dr. Filetti’s encouragement of my research and subsequent use of the topic in later courses meant so much to me. She continues to be invested in my teaching and keeps in contact.”


While Sjogren has enjoyed her time in East Jerusalem, she sometimes misses the simple freedoms some Americans take for granted, such as having a car, being out at night and socializing with the opposite gender. “I live in a Palestinian neighborhood,” she explains, “and have to be aware of the neighbors’ perceptions. It’s also been a transition to give up conveniences – hot water is limited, checkpoints cause unnecessary traffic, and packaged food is expensive.”

Yet the sacrifice has been worth it. “I’m honored to have become so deeply involved in the lives of these families and this community,” she explains. “I’m often in the homes of my students, enjoying incredible Arab hospitality. It’s also been a privilege to work at a school whose focus is peace – peace through character development and the study of nonviolent resistance throughout history. Our students are daily challenged to live beyond societal norms in this area of great conflict.”


Sjogren’s work visa is renewable for up to five years. She plans to continue teaching at the school a final year and then spend a year studying Arabic to achieve greater fluency in the language. She is also interested in pursuing a master’s degree in social work or peace studies.

“My ultimate goal is to work with refugee children in this region, offering a mixture of therapy and education to bring hope and heal trauma. Alongside that, another goal is to train local teachers to educate with more creativity, positivity and encouragement – bringing life and fresh education methods to inspire children to want to learn.”

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