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Aquinas Graduate Teaches English in Saudi Arabia

Committed to service of others, Aquinas graduates take what they’ve learned and serve in a variety of ways all around the world. Michael Stephenson ’09, a dual major of political science and international studies, is a clear example of this commitment to serve. Stephenson’s studies at Aquinas often featured a special emphasis on the Middle East. Now an instructor in Saudi Arabia, Stephenson has been empowered by the core values of an Aquinas education as he learns to live and thrive in a vastly different culture.

Heavily involved in Model United Nations and his local debate team in high school, Stephenson came to Aquinas with a clear idea of what he wanted to do with his life. “I wanted to know a little bit more about what was going on in the Middle East specifically, because of…the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Stephenson said. At first considering enlistment in the military, Stephenson ultimately decided on a college education, turning his sights on world studies and the complex relationships between cultures, nations and social groups.

Stephenson’s passion for public service was affirmed by his experiences at Aquinas. “Once I got to Aquinas, it really solidified my desire to go that route.” He cited Model United Nations and working with Roger Durham, Ph.D., of the political science department, as key experiences in his ongoing development. “He definitely helped me out a long way to really focus on what I want to do,” Stephenson said of his relationship with Durham, who Stephenson referred to as a mentor.

When asked about a specific moment that solidified his current path, he answers almost immediately. “I think when I was in Model Arab League,” he said. “We were primarily studying the Middle East peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians, and the current situation in Iraq… different issues that pertain to the Middle East. While I was there, I had the opportunity to land an internship in Washington, D.C., working with the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. With them, they sent me to work full-time with the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Washington, D.C.”

After graduation from Aquinas in spring of 2009, Stephenson moved to Washington, D.C., then to Chicago. From there, he found a web advertisement to teach English to collegiate-level students at a technical college in Saudi Arabia. Having taken two Arabic language courses at Aquinas, Stephenson felt prepared for another phase of his life. “I figured, ‘I want to get to the Middle East, I want to experience it after studying it so long.’”

Stephenson was hired, and he credits his Aquinas experiences with making a strong impression during the hiring process. “They were really pleased that I spoke Arabic, so that really helped me a long way.” In August of 2010, he made the move to Saudi Arabia. “I’ve been here ever since,” he said. Stephenson teaches at Dammam College of Technology in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia.

“The first few months were rather difficult - becoming acquainted with a different culture, a different way of lifem,” said Stephenson about an average day in his life. “Our weekly schedule is set Saturday through Wednesday, with Thursday and Friday being the days off, because Friday is the holy day in a lot of Middle Eastern countries.” With classes spread throughout the day, Stephenson ends work in the afternoon. He is also grateful for weekends, which allow him to explore and travel.

“It was difficult at first, but after a while I really embraced it,” Stephenson said when asked about the challenges of learning and being a part of a different culture. “That’s one of the big things when encountering a culture is to not only to embrace it but to adapt to it, to really subject yourself to the different aspects of it. Some of things that I’ve experienced here, I’ll never forget - I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

To Aquinas students on cusp of starting their own lives full of potential, he said, “If you have a clear idea of what you want to do, don’t stop until you get there - just keep going! Even when times are rough, especially for how the job market is right now for recent college graduates - keep going. Never stop.”