University is about discovering the unexpected, new ideas and new challenges, and sharing that experience with a tight-knit and diverse community. That’s certainly true of Zoe Halstead, whose interest in the middle-east only sparked after searching for inspiration among the many electives on offer in her first year.
“I never expected to study Middle Eastern studies at uni,” Zoe recalls. “I decided to do some electives to see what else was out there. One of those electives was Politics in the Middle East. Although it was hard being thrown into the deep end of a region I knew nothing about, I loved it. I kept doing subjects about Middle Eastern politics until all that was left was to learn Arabic - so I did.”
The Melbourne native who originally came to ANU to study the Bachelor of Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) combined her middle eastern-studies with studies in international relations and politics, wanting to her expand her theoretical understanding and worldview. It was a decision that opened amazing opportunities for Zoe abroad.
In 2018, she travelled to the Middle East for the first time, studying a one-month intensive program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem about coexistence in the Middle East. With her class, she travelled across Israel and Palestine, learning in the field and hearing directly from people on all sides of the conflict.
“I will never forget walking through the old cobbled streets of Jerusalem as the sun was setting on Shabbat going from one synagogue to another with my classmates. Having the opportunity to finally visit the places I had learnt so much about for 3 years was an incredible experience.”
She returned to the Middle East later that year, this time to Jordan, on a study trip led by Leila Kouatly from the ANU Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies.
“It was a jam packed 6 weeks full of adventures to ruins, camping in the desert, meeting incredible people and of course a lot of study. My favourite part of the trip was when we spent a morning volunteering with local kids, and I met a little girl called Hala who initially seemed shy but within 5 minutes was dancing in front of the whole group. Hala and I read picture books together and she taught me how to dance Jordanian-style. Even though there was a language barrier, it was really exciting to see all the hours of studying Arabic pay off when I could learn about Jordanian culture from a 5-year old’s perspective.”
The Middle East is a vibrant region, both historically, and as a growing economic area. The past, present and future make it an important and engaging region to study and understand.
“Chances are you know someone who is Muslim or Christian or Jewish, or maybe you know someone who is Arab, Persian, Turkish, North African or Israeli, or maybe you know someone posted to the Middle East. Maybe you love baklava and hummus or maybe you’re just annoyed that the price of fuel keeps changing,” Zoe says. “This region is more than just what you see on the news, it is the birthplace of the world’s three largest religions, the home of many different cultures and traditions, and the site of ancient civilisations and heritage monuments. It is also the place where many Australians or their ancestors call home, if nothing else it is worth taking the time to learn a thing or two so you can better understand your neighbour.”
Seldom is the path through university a simple one. Many like Zoe encounter challenges, some decide to change degrees, and most have to balance competing work, study and social commitments. But Zoe looks back on these and offers some optimistic advice.
“There have been a lot of twists and difficult decisions along the way and just when you think you’re finally in control you’ll get thrown a curve ball. As long as you keep trying and seek help when you need it, you’ll make it through. And sometimes those curveballs turn out to be a blessing.”