Undergraduate Academic Affairs

April 30, 2019

Teaching across borders to become a better doctor

Tammy Tarhini

Tammy Tarhini (’17, medical anthropology and global health; molecular, cellular and developmental biology) graduated knowing she wanted to pursue a career in medicine, with a focus on working with Arabic speaking populations. However, she decided to spend the year before starting at George Washington University Medical School as an English teaching assistant in Berlin, Germany. The question she’s most frequently asked is, “You want to be teacher?” Nope. Here’s why she’s confident that teaching English on a Fulbright Fellowship will make her a better physician.

Tammy working at the Fulbirght Diversity Conference

Tammy working with a team of fellow Fulbright students at the Fulbright Diversity conference.

“You actually pronounced my name right.”

I smiled at the student I had called on. It was my first day working at a high school in Berlin, and although the class knew that their new teacher’s assistant was from the U.S., they had no idea I was a native Arabic speaker as well. In Arabic, we have several letters and sounds that don’t exist in English — or German, for that matter — so even well-known names like Ali or Mohammed are difficult to say correctly for non-native speakers. “I’m Lebanese American,” I explained, which instantly opened the door for my students to talk about their own backgrounds. Some came from Syria, others from Turkey. Some came from villages near mine in Lebanon. Some had only arrived in Germany a few years ago as refugees, whereas others were born here and had never lived elsewhere. And all of them were engaging with their identity as Germans with a “Migrationshintergrund” — best translated as a “migration background” — in ways that reminded me of how I grew up trying to figure out my own as a first-generation Lebanese American.

View of Museum Island

Tammy spent a gap year between high school and college in Nord Rhein Westfalen, near Cologne. While there, she learned German, lived with a host family and learned more about the current refugee and immigrant situation in Germany. Pictured above is Museum Island, one of Tammy’s favorite places in the city.

It was the prospect of moments like these that inspired me to delay going to medical school for a year in order to pursue my Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) grant in Berlin. I had applied specifically for a “diversity placement,” which has meant that I have been working in schools with higher populations of students from refugee, minority and immigrant backgrounds. Currently in Germany, this means that many of these students come from Arabic-speaking households.

University of Postdam

While in Berlin, Tammy is also taking classes at the University of Potsdam on subjects like global health, human rights and the refugee crisis. She explains, “It’s been fascinating to look at these topics from the viewpoint of German authors and thinkers, and to participate in conversations on them with people from the other side of the world.”

My time here is split between two schools where I teach English to students in grades 7-12.  One school is close to the center of Berlin and has a more affluent population. The other school, on the outskirts of the city, is in a much more under-resourced area. In both schools, I’m the only teacher with an Arabic background, and something that has stuck with me is seeing how important it has been for my students to have a teacher they can identify with.

This reminds me of when I studied abroad in Jordan, volunteering in a Palestinian refugee camp health clinic. There, all of the medical professionals also had Palestinian backgrounds, and I saw how important it was for the patients to have healthcare providers they could connect to and identify with. As an Arab American, this showed me a way in which my background and career path could intersect, and solidified my career goal of working as a physician with a focus on under-served and neglected populations, specifically Arabic-speaking refugee and immigrant communities.

Some people have asked me how teaching English in Berlin for a year could possibly relate to becoming a physician. For one, I believe both teachers and doctors play a role as educators, and I hope to carry over what I have learned from my students to later help educate patients on their health, what resources they have, how to take care of themselves and their families and more. Being their teaching assistant has been a constant learning and growth experience. It has motivated me to become a better communicator, be more flexible and adaptable in the classroom, and to keep learning how to connect with a variety of students from diverse backgrounds in meaningful ways; all of which are invaluable skills that I will need to become an effective, caring and compassionate physician.

I love that as a Fulbright ETA, I can use my own identity and experiences to benefit my students, pushing and encouraging them to grow and learn. It’s been mutually rewarding to work with students with whom I share a language and cultural background — from fun bonding moments to being able to use Arabic as a tool to explain things to students in their native language in English lessons. Equally meaningful for me is that by being a teacher through the Fulbright ‘diversity’ placement, the students I work with have someone they can relate to and see themselves in. And as a doctor, I hope to do the same and keep working in these communities, which is what makes this year as an ETA invaluable.

While in Europe, Tammy has been able to travel extensively, including to Andorra (pictured above,) Spain, Norway and within Germany.

While in Europe, Tammy has been able to travel extensively, including to Andorra (pictured above,) Spain, Norway and within Germany.

About the Office of Merit Scholarships, Fellowships and Awards

The Fulbright application process is supported by the Office of Merit Scholarships, Fellowships and Awards (OMSFA), a UAA program. OMSFA works with faculty, staff and students to identify and support promising students in developing the skills and personal insights necessary to become strong candidates for this and other prestigious awards. The UW campus application process for students interested in Fulbright U.S. Student Programs (and other scholarships supporting graduate studies around the world) will get started this spring for 2020-21 awards. Watch for updates about OMSFA’s Global Fellowships Prep program.