Lecturer in Rhetoric and Composition, American University in Cairo
Social justice advocate

allana haist

I chose a degree in Humanities over my acceptance to McMaster for Civil Engineering and to Waterloo for Environmental Engineering. I based this decision on the advice: you can pursue a job that will pay well and maybe end up being mediocre doing something you do not love, or you can choose to study and do what you love, do it well, and true success will find its way to you. I have never looked back on that decision. My grounding in Humanities paved the way for all of the subsequent adventures and diverse array of work I’ve had ever since.

I look back upon my years in Humanities with tremendous fondness, sentimentality, and appreciation. Not only for the professors and their lectures, which continue to inspire me to this day, but most especially for the colleagues and the community that the program created and the deep friendships formed therein. The college was a haven for original thought and original thinkers.

It was, and continues to be, what university life and learning ideally should be. It is not a cookie-cutter degree that churns out cookie-cut minds. The Bachelor of Humanities ignites passionate inquiry. Creativity. Exploration. It challenges you to go beyond your boundaries, to see the world differently, to seek practical solutions that draw from the world’s great wisdom traditions and develop the key critical thinking skills needed to save our ailing planet.

My degree in Humanities was rounded off with a year abroad studying Philosophy at the KU Leuven in Belgium where I doubled up with an overload of Philosophy courses. This, combined with a semester of extra credits from UVic (ranging from Chinese to Calculus), plus a summer of Classics credits, led to my early graduation with an Honors B.A. in “Religion, Classics, and Humanities.”

For my mandatory language course in Humanities I chose to study Biblical Hebrew, which led to much of what followed. My Hebrew teacher brought me to the Middle East for the first time in 1999 on an archeology dig in Aqaba, Jordan and study tours of archeological sites throughout Syria, Turkey and Greece. My Master’s Degree in Applied Ethics was from the KU Leuven, a joint program between the Theology and Philosophy faculties.

This was the same year as 9/11 and my experience in the Middle East led me towards a study of Islam. I wrote my Master’s thesis in that year on the topic of Just war and Jihad. I later began my PhD in Germany at a small university (in DDR times known as Karl Marx Stadt; thereafter called, more tritely, Chemnitz), where I completed my PhD in Political Theory on minority rights and divided societies, presenting my Vita first on Isaiah Berlin and second on the Libyan Intervention. During this time I received a scholarship from the province of Saxony to live in Jerusalem, where I spent three months studying with Professor Baruch Kimmerling at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

I moved to Egypt in 2006, pregnant, still working on my PhD, and part owner of a new company (based in Cairo and in Munich) that organized scholarly conferences and events focused on the topic of science for the developing world. During these years I raised my beautiful daughter, led a team that organized around 9 international scientific conferences on solar energy and nanoscience from Cairo to Barcelona, initiated a science outreach program for high school students in Egypt, and worked for several NGOs and companies that included a diverse array of experiences including:

  • Business development manager for ACDI/VOCA (supporting sustainable agriculture for small-scale farmers)
  • Writer/editor/program designer CIPE (on issues of freedom of information, combatting corruption, the informal economy, and detangling the Kafkaesque bureaucracy in Egypt)
  • Editor for PwC (on corporate citizenship)
  • Writer/editor Gerhardt Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement (developing a Grant Craft Guide for the Middle East / civic engagement following the Arab Spring)
  • Editor British Council (post-revolutionary civic youth movements in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya)
  • Proposal Writer at the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies, AUC
  • A short stint at Wild Guanabana, a Cairo-based adventure tourism company

I have also volunteered at several charities here in Cairo: from the Light and Hope Association (an orchestra of blind women) to Marwa Fayed’s Toy Run (a charity arranging toy deliveries to orphanages).

My most beloved position so far is my current one. I am now a lecturer in the Rhetoric and Composition Department at the American University of Cairo. I feel so incredibly lucky in this work to be able to experience the same openness, creativity, and excellent colleagues as I did back in my days in Humanities. The department is a part of the University’s Academy for Liberal Arts, placing us at the forefront of creating a literate culture where the sort of critical thinking we did back in Humanities can be introduced to our students here in Cairo.

I have taught courses ranging from Writing and Cognition (which examines the connection between writing as a tool and the structuring of the mind, covering the invention of Cuneiform and Hieroglyphs, writings of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o to Kay Redfield Jamison, etc.), to Research Writing (with a theme of Nanotechnology for Developing Countries), to a course called “Who am I?” (which takes freshmen students on a journey of self-awareness through lectures and discussions on writings ranging from Oliver Sacks, Albert Bandura, Dante, Darwin and the Tibetan Book of the Dead amongst many other works of psychology, world religion, and philosophy).

My background from the Bachelor of Humanities is the foundation for all of the work I presently do and have done in the past. It has been the bedrock for navigating life across three continents and numerous travels in between (I particularly thank Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy for much of the ease of my journey). It made my book collection a rich one; there have been many times friends of mine have said how they had wished to have studied what they loved and to have had time to have read the types of books that I had the privilege of reading in the Humanities program.

Maybe someday I will go back and get a degree in Environmental Engineering. I am presently dabbling with the idea of taking an extra degree in Computer Programming or simply self-teaching myself. If I do, I believe whatever studies and work that follow will be fortified by everything I have learned and experienced from the first moment I veered towards a Humanities degree. Many thanks to the College.

Regards, from Cairo.

Allana Haist is Lecturer in Rhetoric and Composition, American University in Cairo, an entrepreneur, and a social justice advocate.

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