‘Making the impossible commonplace’: Expat in Libya earns 2nd ASU degree

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Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

Like many students who choose to complete Arizona State University degrees online, Asmaa Khalifa had life responsibilities to juggle while completing her master’s degree that many of her classmates could identify with: Parent, homeschooler of her three children, caregiver to an elder.

But some of the other challenges this College of Integrative Sciences and Arts student faced down were almost unfathomable to peers.

“Because of my unique geographic location, there was always the time difference (I am GMT+2, so nine hours ahead of Arizona now),” noted Khalifa, whose hometown is Lancaster, California, but who has lived in Tripoli, Libya, where her husband’s family is from, for two decades. “But having been through a revolution, being an expatriate in Libya, calling on my experiences as a displaced person, and honoring my culture and traditions — which never coincided with coursework — was quite beyond what I was hearing from my peers in and out of the classroom.

“I quickly came to realize that the Libyan adage ‘The fingers on your hand are not the same length’ is more descriptive of my experience than I wanted to admit at the time,” she said, looking back on the last two years.

Recognizing the extraordinary context within which Khalifa was working, the faculty in the Master of Science in Organizational Leadership program rallied around her.

Khalifa, who graduated in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, was one of the first students to enroll in the organizational leadership master’s program.

Leadership and integrative studies Senior Lecturer L. Marie Walllace met her early in the program and worked closely with Khalifa on a project for the elective course OGL 554: Learning and Development in Organizations.

“This was one of the first courses she took in the graduate program, and when it became apparent that the research she was interested in pursuing might be roadblocked because Libya was one of the three countries ASU’s Institutional Review Board did not have approved IRB protocols for, rather than being dissuaded, Asmaa developed a training  protocol for the Ministry of Education in Libya to create the protocols,” said Wallace, “and has them ready to implement on a large scale when the time is appropriate.”

Wallace recommended that Khalifa ask Robert Kirsch, director of the master’s program, to serve as her thesis adviser because, she said, “he has a level of expertise in political science and critical leadership studies, a relatively new and burgeoning field that intersects well with Asmaa’s academic interests.

“I also knew he had the empathy to be sensitive to the cultural milieu in which she functions, related to the expectations of motherhood and being a daughter-in-law in Libya. Asmaa faces obstacles that many students do not encounter. She has to worry about her family's safety and well-being in a way that is quite unfamiliar to most of our students (I heard the bomb sirens when meeting with her once). She often has to deal with unstable internet and inconsistent infrastructure. Robert worked with her every Wednesday for three consecutive terms via Zoom. It became a part of his routine.

“Her thesis is incredible. She focused on informal and everyday leadership related to improving secondary education in Libya. Her ideas were so well developed and her data told an amazing story of people coming together to exhibit everyday leadership to enhance their children's experience and enhance their community in general.”

Khalifa plans to pursue a doctoral degree eventually, “though it is further down the line in my career,” she said. “I would like to teach undergraduates as well as continue to develop my theory on everyday leadership. The possibilities are a bit daunting right now, but I am looking at ways to expand the discipline here in North Africa,” Khalifa said.

She wants people to recognize that leadership is not exclusive to formal organizations: “I think too often heroism can be conflated with everyday leadership, because people typically do not associate leadership with everyday people contributing to their communities on a regular basis.”

Friends in the states often ask her why she doesn’t just return home to the U.S., given the political instability and infrastructure challenges that continue in Libya.

“… I believe that working hard and doing everything that is in my power to survive and thrive is the only way to go through life,” she tells them, in addition to emphasizing not wanting to live as a family divided. “I do not believe in quitting. I believe in making the impossible commonplace.”

Khalifa shared these additional reflections about her ASU journey.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study organizational leadership?

Answer: The process was more trial and error than anything. As an undergrad, I meandered around the social sciences and tried out different disciplines while completing my degree requirements. I had taken an organizational leadership course; I liked it. I enrolled in another and liked that as well. The term after that, I pursued a minor in organizational leadership. The discipline manifested itself over time through getting to know more about what it entailed and how it is applied, more than a sudden realization.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: ASU was a good fit for me because the program I chose was completely online. I had received my undergrad degree from ASU and was happily surprised at the invitation from CISA when the master’s program in organizational leadership began. It was an easy choice.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I’ve learned so much more than just the coursework that I couldn’t narrow that experience down to one person or lesson. The top three for me would be:

  1. Robert Kirsch for teaching me to take a deeper look and have enough courage to apply my own lens rather than just relying on those scholars that came before me. He taught me that my perspective is just as valid and critical to the discipline as any other. This really translates to so much more.
  2. L. Marie Wallace for teaching me that there is always another option and that there is no shame in asking. This went against so much of how I saw myself as a student and as a person in general. It was an eye-opening revelation.
  3. Mai P. Trinh for teaching me that it is OK to admit weakness and offer my strengths in collaboration. She taught me that teamwork and lifting one another through open communication helps us all take a step towards our shared goals.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Document as much as you can. You are learning for a reason. You will need these lessons in your future endeavors and will need to call on your past knowledge, skills, abilities and experiences. It is much easier to tap into that wealth of information when you leave breadcrumbs. If it seems important in the moment, write it down; you can always edit later. Just get it out of your mind and in a form other than your memory. Never be afraid to ask a reasonable question. Professors were students, and they care a lot more than students think; just don’t wait until the eleventh hour.

Q: Did you have a favorite spot for studying?

A: I have studied just about everywhere you can imagine, but I don’t have a favorite spot. I have a favorite device, stationary, cup of coffee. It’s more about ambience for me than location. In general, I have a designated spot that I study in my home. This is to demarcate my time and focus so my children and spouse can pretend I am not in the same place as them for some time.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I believe that solutions are proximal and that as humans we lead and are led because we are passionate about the person or the cause or both. Whatever be the case, we need to provide people with tools to muster the courage to act and share with them the knowledge of how to do so safely and sustainably. Tools without the knowledge to use them and knowledge without tools may mutually exclude themselves for lack of action. For me, the $40 million would translate to investing in Libya and North Africa in general. I would begin with increasing the economic opportunities for women in business in the MENA region. This would be accomplished through grass roots advocacy campaigns that inform and invest in small businesses owned by women, while at the same time tapping into the power of professional successful women in business to provide mentorships and help change local and regional policies and perceptions of women’s roles in business. The program, with the help of nonprofit NGOs, could grow from there, but the program must provide for the next level of women in business and not be a single event or period of time.

Maureen Roen
maureen.roen@asu.edu

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