–Andrew Erickson, Dec 17, 2019
Kayla Tolbert entered college in search of a challenge.
As she contemplated which foreign language to learn during her time at Colorado State University, she decided not to pursue a Latin-based language like Spanish or French that she might learn to speak fluently with greater ease. Instead, the political science and government major added an Arabic studies minor, tackling a language with a much steeper learning curve for a native English speaker—but one with which she has a personal connection.
“My mom’s Muslim and reads a lot of the Koran, and I was more interested in it on a scholarly level,” says Tolbert, SIS/MA ’20. “I wanted something that was not the same alphabet and I wanted to learn something different. I was like, ‘Oh, this looks like a challenge, I think I should try it.’”
The online international relations student has applied the same philosophy to her graduate work in the Middle East. A recipient of a prestigious Boren Fellowship, Tolbert has been in Amman, Jordan, since August, immersing herself in the language to prepare for a research practicum on refugees that she anticipates completing this spring.
Living among Arabic speakers has allowed the Denver native to sharpen her language skills. She regularly wades into the differences between variations of Arabic, including the more formal Fusha, with which she’s more familiar, and the colloquial Ammiya. Tolbert reads the language well but continues to work on her pronunciation, particularly of trickier consonant sounds that require her to use the back of her tongue.
“I did a little bit of self-teaching [after undergrad], but I didn’t have the funds to study Arabic the way I wanted to,” Tolbert says. “Getting the Boren has been helpful because I am exposed to it every day.”
The reinforcing experience of learning Arabic as she learns about people who speak it is not unlike Tolbert’s last couple years in Washington, in which she has taken international relations coursework while working full-time in the field.
After moving to DC in 2017 and completing a public affairs internship with Islamic Relief USA, Tolbert landed a job as a division coordinator with the International Monetary Fund, during which she edited economists’ reports and helped them prepare for international missions.
“It was nice to be able to do some of the things that I was studying while going to work and bringing it back to class,” Tolbert says. “In grad school, a lot of times you expect to get that experience after, but it was nice to have that experience of bouncing what you’re learning off of others. Especially for econ classes—I was surrounded by world renowned economists.”
She also sought an avenue for giving back to her new city. At a conference in New York, Tolbert attended a presentation by doulas about the disproportionately high maternal mortality rate among black women in DC. The lecture resonated with Tolbert, who grew up wanting to be an obstetrician-gynecologist; she volunteered as a doula with Community of Hope, helping build safe and comfortable environments for women giving birth at hospitals around DC.
Childbirth rarely happens on a precise schedule, meaning Tolbert often had to be ready at a moment’s notice.
“I could be doing homework and they’d say, ‘Oh, [a mother] is going into labor, you have to be there in three hours,’” she says. “I’m like, ‘Cool, let’s try to see what part of this paper I can finish before I have to go to the hospital for a few hours.’”
Tolbert spent at least two 24-hour shifts volunteering every month. Her time as a doula helped her better understand how to be emotionally present for women and project calm. She also learned how the circumstances surrounding labor—everything from finances to whether a woman had given birth before—differed, as did reactions to her care.
“You never know what to expect, but you learn mechanisms of how to approach them and you learn more about yourself. ‘What type of energy or what type of attitude am I giving off to make this person feel this way?’” Tolbert says. “I learned more about how I can perform in the room or change the tone of my voice or the position of my body. It’s being able to tell what type of reaction that woman has to you.”
Those calming techniques proved useful as Tolbert juggled class, career, and Community of Hope.
“I would love to tell you that, ‘Oh, it was nothing,’ but I just learned how to deal with it,” she says. “I do think [a full schedule] kept me focused in that I always had something to look forward to.”
Tolbert will spend the next few months applying her language immersion through primary research.
She’s working on a literature review for a project about how climate change has shaped the experiences and identities of Somali refugees living in Jordan.
Tolbert’s interest in the subject stems from her work with Islamic Relief USA during Ramadan in 2017, when she researched Somalis displaced by drought.
“How does that change your identity, when you are no longer in your home country? How do you cook things? How does your day-to-day life change because of climate change?” Tolbert asks. “You now have to address different things, where you were once used to a certain environment. When you cross borders, your sense of identity [is] recognized in a different way.”
After completing her fellowship and wrapping up her studies at AU this spring, Tolbert hopes to continue to build a career in international policy analysis. The only remaining question is not whether Tolbert will have the language and professional skills to be successful, but where around the globe she would like to work.
“I think when I was younger, I always just saw myself moving abroad here or there, but I like the idea of having a base in the US and being able to move abroad and come back,” she says. “I want to be able to assess more than just one country. I want to expand my knowledge into all parts of the world.”