By Samantha Wolk, Georgetown University ’18
“Bullets are flying in every direction. Explosions shake my house…I take a step back, close my eyes, and cannot believe where I am. I am in Benghazi, Libya during the Arab Spring in 2011, and the Revolution has just begun.”
This quotation is from Amina Gerrbi’s speech at the 2016 Georgetown Tedx Conference. The conference’s theme was The Tipping Point, giving speakers the opportunity to share their stories of how critical moments in their lives forced them to change for the better. Undoubtedly, tipping points are incredibly challenging, forcing rapid, groundbreaking change in our lives. However, a more common and often equally difficult struggle lies in their aftermath as we try to retain that internal dynamism, self-reflection, and drive to affect positive change that tipping points inspire.
In the following interview, Georgetown Scholarship Program (GSP) graduate Amina Gerrbi (Georgetown University ’17) shares her journey from the chaotic streets of Benghazi during the Libyan Revolution to graduation on Healy Lawn this past spring. Furthermore, she elaborates on how her Jesuit education helped her discover her passion for serving others and how she is pursuing that call as an alumna.
Samantha Wolk: Starting from the beginning, how did you find yourself in Libya during the Revolution?
Amina Gerrbi: My parents are from Libya, but I was born and raised in Ashburn, VA. We moved back to Libya in 2009, which was my freshman year of high school. The Revolution began in 2011. Even though I was only a sophomore in high school, my friends were excited to support the cause. I protested, burned state propaganda, and even became one of the first female radio show hosts for the only English-speaking station in Benghazi. I also got to be part of a non-profit organization called United Libyan Women that transported the injured to bordering hospitals.
I think it’s important to understand though that while the rallies and civic activism were highlights of the Revolution, there is a darker side of the story. There was so much violence going on at the time – murders and rapes during the war – and I saw things that I never thought I would see. I consider myself very lucky because even though I feared the violence going on, nothing like that ever happened to me. But other people weren’t so lucky.
I can’t imagine experiencing those fears at just 16 years old. Was that your tipping point?
Actually, my tipping point wasn’t even due to the Revolution exactly – it had to do with not getting into college, as small of an issue as that seems in comparison. By 2012, I was able to move back to the United States to stay with family I had in Virginia. I returned as a junior, and even though I was behind academically (due to curricular differences and missing so much school during the Revolution), I had to complete my junior and senior classes in one year because I thought I might have to return to Libya. I struggled a lot at first, but I worked hard and managed to get straight As. However, my grades from Libya had to be averaged into my overall GPA, which brought it down to a 2.9.
My school in Libya had closed for most of the Revolution, but it reopened so that we could try to quickly finish our classes. Since there was no time for exams, we received grades that weren’t representative of our individual work and that brought my GPA down further. Thus, I was devastated when despite all my hard work, I didn’t get into any universities. My only option was community college, and that was my tipping point.
Of course, my tipping point was deeper than not getting into any universities. The root of it was feeling like all my hard work was pointless. To put this in perspective, just a year earlier, I was so scared for my future and depressed by all the violence occurring around me in Libya. Now, I was safe in the U.S., dealing with what was just a temporary failure in comparison to my situation in Libya, yet I felt the same desperation. How could it be possible to feel the same level of depression in wartime as in peacetime?
I needed a deeper purpose in my life, and I found it by returning to Islam. Finally, I realized that I was healthy, safe, and still getting an education. It was my duty to make the most of the situation I was in. Community college gave me a chance to restart, and I decided that no matter how unrealistic it seemed, I would transfer to a great school and get a full scholarship. They gave us a goal sheet at the beginning of my first semester of community college, and I wrote that I wanted to transfer to Georgetown.
I had heard about the kind of people at Georgetown: intelligent, ambitious people who literally want to change the world. Everyone is constantly challenged, wondering and brainstorming, and I think that environment is naturally contagious in the way that it forces out the best version of yourself. People told me I shouldn’t even apply because they doubted that I could afford it or even get in. But I decided that as unrealistic as it seemed, I would make it happen. I did everything that I could: internships on Capitol Hill, community service, straight As, and even letters of recommendation from my college’s president and my Congressman.
I remember the day I got my acceptance letter. I didn’t even tell anyone because I knew I deserved to get in but I couldn’t afford to go. However, a few weeks later, I received another letter saying that between my Pell Grant and Georgetown Scholarship Program (GSP), my tuition was completely paid for. I was convinced I misread it. I even called GSP to confirm! When I realized that it was real, it was honestly the best moment of my life. I believe in the law of attraction, and getting a full scholarship to Georgetown confirmed for me that you can really do anything if you put your mind to it.
What did you study at Georgetown, and what does being Jesuit-educated mean to you?
I majored in International Political Economy and Business in the McDonough School of Business. And actually, one of the reasons I chose Georgetown’s business school is because of the Jesuit tradition. To me, being Jesuit-educated is like being educated from the inside out rather than the outside in. Most universities adopt an external approach, asking you what career you want and then teaching to that. At Jesuit universities, education begins internally. Who are you? What is your purpose? The emphasis on self-reflection and finding purpose is really helpful for staying focused in both life and in your classes.
Sometimes people ask me what it’s like to be Muslim at a Jesuit college, and I actually love it because a lot of Jesuit values are core values of Islam too. Personally, I think that women and men for others is the most influential Jesuit value in my life.
Since graduating in Spring ’17, where are you working? What are your plans for the future?
I’m currently a technology consultant at Oracle. But I’m also starting an organization called the Muslimah Society to create a networking platform for women to empower other women through mentorship, storytelling, and social impact initiatives. I feel like my purpose is to help others, so looking forward, I would love to get into social entrepreneurship. Nothing would make me happier than helping others 9-5…or 9-9 more realistically!
Samantha Wolk is a senior at Georgetown University and an intern at AJCU.