The Algerian scholar Naouel Abdellatif Mami believes in the importance of educational diversity, for students and universities.
Mami is vice-rector for external relations at Mohamed Lamine Debaghine Setif 2 University, a post she has held for a decade. In a recent interview with Al-Fanar Media, she talked about her work to build international partnerships and to create study-abroad opportunities for students.
She also talked about highlights of her own academic career, which include leading a department at the age of 23 and achieving the rank of professor by age 35, while also raising a family.
“In 2016, I was the youngest professor [to achieve] the title of professor five years after obtaining a doctorate,” she said in a conversation over Zoom.
Mami admits that it was not easy since she was heading her department at the time. “I achieved that with perseverance and lots of sacrifices,” she said. “My loving and supportive family and husband helped me to be who I am today.”
A University from Scratch
In 2011, the former University of Setif, in eastern Algeria, was split into two universities: Ferhat Abbas Setif 1 University for science, technology, and engineering, and Mohamed Lamine Debaghine Setif 2 University for humanities and social sciences.
“Thanks o them [Unimed], Setif 2 University has developed a very large network with other universities, and also in capacity building.”
Mami helped the young institution prosper and build connections.
“The first challenge was that we started from scratch,” she said. “It was a new university and a new department. All the infrastructure and international relations had to be built from zero. I contacted the people I know from all over the world to achieve that.”
Being a humanities and social sciences-focused university was the second challenge, Mami says.
“The majority here thinks there are no job or research opportunities in social sciences,” she explained. “We did our best to find a place for social sciences at Algerian campuses.”
Unimed was an early ally of the university’s internationalization strategy. “We have been partners since 2013,” Mami said. “Thanks to them, Setif 2 University has developed a very large network with other universities, and also in capacity building.”
Bridging Cultural Gaps
Mami conducted her post-doctoral research on educational psychology and foreign languages at Switzerland’s University of Fribourg.
It proved to be a challenging experience. She was forced to leave her first daughter, only four months old at the time, with her husband in Algeria. And it was her first ever trip to a European country.
“At the time, Algeria was just going out of the ‘Black Decade’ (1991-2002). In Europe, people had a very bad image of veiled Muslim women. They thought most of Algerians were terrorists,” Mami said.
However, Mami’s Swiss supervisor helped her overcome the cultural shock. “My supervisor’s long stay in Turkey helped her understand the culture and the religion,” added Mami. “Fortunately, they finally discovered who I am and explored a new face about Algeria.”
The challenges she faced abroad motivated Mami to do her best to help students find opportunities to study abroad.
“We were a pioneer in integrating the Erasmus Plus mobility programme and several other programs,” she said. “We helped students to study abroad and discover others’ heritage, because I believe diversity is richness. We should not be afraid of meeting other people who are different from us.”
“We helped students to study abroad and discover others’ heritage, because I believe diversity is richness. We should not be afraid of meeting other people who are different from us.”
Mami considers the smiles she sees on the faces of students she sent abroad as her biggest professional pride. “Some of them are from remote areas,” she said. “If not for the mobility programs, they will never have a chance to visit Europe.”
In partnership with Unimed, Setif 2 University coordinates the Ci-Res Project to assist refugees in higher education.
“We offer them an integration program, training in Arabic or French, specific training about their rights and duties, and a guide for the integration,” she said. “We also organize events to help them express their cultural interests, sport competitions, and entrepreneurial activities to help them secure jobs after graduation.”
Female University Leadership
Mami confirms there is a big arsenal of laws in favor of women getting higher positions in Algeria.
In practice, however, it is still difficult. “It is linked to the culture, and the society here is still masculine,” she said. “Women have the duties to be a housewife and a mother. To be in a higher position, a woman must conciliate both as she still have to do both her domestic and official obligations. This makes women prefer not to take higher positions.”
As a mother of two children, Mami herself has learned to manage her duties at the expense of sleep. “I have to wake up very early, and go to sleep very late,” she said. “I could have never done what I am doing now without having an understanding husband who helps me in everything.”
Still, she finds time for research. Mami is currently working on a research project on global citizenship education and a Swiss-funded digitalization of Algeria’s higher education. The latter project was launched this month to train staff on how to deal with the information and communication technologies in the era of hybrid education.
“There is an emergency need to review some of our educational programs to fit with the socioeconomic needs of the market.”
“It is difficult to manage all these duties, but you can, if you do not sleep,” she said. “In the morning, I am an administrator. In the evening, when the kids are in bed, I am a researcher.”
Education and Language Reforms
With more than 40,000 students at Setif 2 University alone, Mami thinks Algeria will not be able to provide enough jobs for all graduates.
“There is an emergency need to review some of our educational programs to fit with the socioeconomic needs of the market,” she said. “Now, the public sector cannot afford jobs for everyone. We also need to encourage entrepreneurship and offer some pedagogical formation that goes in line with the demands of the education sector.”
On the debate over Algeria’s attempts to switch to English in higher education, Mami favors going with the global direction.
“I support the shift to the language of science and technology, whatever the language is,” she said. For now, that means English, she said. But “maybe in the coming years, we will be speaking about Chinese or even Arabic, who knows!”
Mami’s advice to young people is to believe in themselves, work hard, and focus on long-lasting success. “Real success needs sacrifices,” she said. “For Algerians, I ask them not to lose hope in their country.”
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She also thinks there is a need to keep in line with global emergencies.
“We should gather our efforts to prioritize health, to develop medicines, and make them affordable for everyone,” she said. “The second top priority is the environment. Greening is quite essential, because if we do not live in this place, we will have nowhere else to live.”
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