by Nesma Daoud
After beginning her education at Occidental College in 1963, Lois Aroian studied abroad at the American University of Beirut where, through her stay and travels to other Middle Eastern countries, her passion for the region was cemented. This life changing year ultimately inspired her to teach, enter the foreign service, and become a full-time minister for the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. ,” Aroian said,
Upon completing her degree in Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College, Aroian earned the National Defense Foreign Language (now known as Foreign Language and Area Studies) fellowship and was accepted into the University of Michigan’s Department of History to begin her graduate studies in Arab history. “June 1967 was a terrible time to start graduate studies in Arab history, since all the Arab countries had broken relations with the U.S. after the war. So even though I was highly-motivated, it wasn’t at all clear where I’d be able to do research,” Aroian recalled.
Although her journey through graduate school was uncertain due to the strained political relations between the West and the Middle East, Aroian obtained a fellowship from the American Research Center in Egypt and was able to conduct research in Egypt through the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program. “Egypt became like home during my research years; that’s why I never sought a diplomatic posting there,” Aroian said.
Spending a great deal of her life in the Middle East allowed Aroian to gain a deeper understanding of the region, and wishes more people would dismiss the common misconceptions and accept a more positive and accurate view.
Aroian returned to the United States and began her post as a teaching fellow in Studies in Religion at U-M after completing her research. However, as a PhD student in Modern Middle Eastern history and as a woman, finding a job proved to be challenging. Aroian eventually found a position at the University of Ilorin in Nigeria for two years.
“I was looking for a position at a time when Michigan’s History Department had almost no female faculty among 70 professors. We women were bucking a trend, and we had to work a lot harder to be taken seriously,” she said.
In 1983-1984, Aroian was awarded the Rockefeller Congressional Fellowship by the American Historical Association and moved on from teaching full time to working a member of the House of Representatives prior to entering the U.S. Foreign Service. “That time enabled me to understand why our Middle East policy was as it was and that my ability to change any of it in the Foreign Service would be negligible. However, I still thought it would be possible to make a difference,” Aroian stated.
Aroian began her career in the U.S. Foreign Service in Sudan as the Consular Section Chief and subsequently ended up dividing her time between the Near East Bureau and the Africa Bureau. Through her time at the foreign service, she served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. embassies in Mauritania and Botswana and as Principal Officer of the U.S. Consulate-General in Quebec City, Canada. “I spent five years in the Foreign Service dealing with labor issues. Most of my career as a political officer focused on democracy and human rights. I feel as though my 23 ½ years in the Foreign Service won friends for the U.S. and helped people in need,” Aroian said.
During her time in Quebec, Aroian occasionally preached and led worship at two English-speaking churches and transitioned from working for the Foreign Service into the ministry. “I could no longer ignore my call to ministry and started Wesley Theological Seminary one course at a time toward a Master of Divinity degree. It took me six years to finish while I worked full time at State. That made my transition from retirement in 2007 very easy. I was already well on my way to my next career,” she said.
Throughout her her career shifts, Aroian always remembered her time at CMENAS fondly.
Recently, Aroian gifted CMENAS with a generous donation so students can pursue their interests in the Middle East and North Africa and be presented with the same opportunities she has.