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  • Ikbal Ben Gaied Hassine
  • Ikbal Ben Gaied Hassine

  • Emporia State Student Meets President Obama

  • Since arriving from Tunisia in August of 2013, Ikbal Ben Gaied Hassine’s time in America has been filled with new experiences. She has traveled to Chicago, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and the Grand Canyon.

    But it was a trip to Washington, D.C., that left her speechless.

    That was when Hassine and her fellow Thomas Jefferson Scholars met President Barack Obama and Tunisian interim Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa at the White House.

    “We were in the Rose Garden when President Obama and the prime minister were having a discussion and they came out and it was really a remarkable moment,” said Hassine. “(The President) said ‘hey guys’ and we just stood there. He said ‘hey guys’ again and we finally responded. He shook our hands and asked us to say our name and university.”

    Hassine said President Obama made everyone “feel really special.”

    “(The President) asked how Americans behaved with us,” she added.
    “The conversation was open and full of jokes. Like, ‘you should be in class right now.’ He joked about his white hair, saying he did not have any white hair when he came to the White House.”

    Ikbal Ben Gaied Hassine and other students with President ObamaThe group took photographs with the President and met with Tunisian Higher Education, Scientific Research and Technology Minister Taoufik Jelassi to discuss how the Tunisian educational system could be changed based on the experiences of the 10 Thomas Jefferson Scholars.

    “We gave our ideas and there were good ideas from the minister of education. It was most exciting.”

    To qualify to become a Thomas Jefferson Scholar, Hassine had to write two essays, have good enough grades, pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), and do an interview.

    “It was a real honor,” said Hassine of being selected.

    The International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX) website says of the scholarship program, “Through year-long programs of study in the U.S., exploration of American culture, community service, and professional internships, Thomas Jefferson scholars develop a broad and nuanced understanding of U.S. values and become 21st century global citizens prepared to contribute to the economic growth and development of Tunisia. The Tunisian Undergraduate Scholarship Program is a program of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State.”

    The site also explains the background behind the development of the program.
    “University-educated Tunisian youth face distressing levels of unemployment. An intensive academic and experiential learning exchange program will provide talented participants with the opportunity to build state-of-the-art technical knowledge and skills in relevant fields of study, to be exposed to innovation and entrepreneurship, and to build deep connections between Americans and Tunisians, strengthening mutual understanding, economic development, and future stability.”

    After Hassine was accepted into the program, IREX selected Emporia State University as the school she would attend for the two-semester exchange program.

    Hassine is studying management and business administration while enrolled at Emporia State. She will return to Tunisia this summer and decide what to do next.

    “I might decide to come back (to Emporia State),” said Hassine.

    Coming from the Mediterranean climate of Bizerte, Tunisia, where she was born, Hassine has two brothers, one older and one younger, and a younger sister. Bizerte has a population of about 115,000, so there was an obvious size difference when moving to Emporia.

    “Emporia is really small, but you can find a lot to do here,” said Hassine. “I like living here.”

    Her first impression of the campus was good.

    “There are good people here,” she said. “My first interaction was they welcomed us and took care of us. I never imagined everyone would be that kind.”

    Once enrolled at Emporia State, Hassine wasted no time getting involved. The first semester she did 20 community service hours and then got an internship with the local United Way for her second semester.

    “I try to attend every event and be involved on campus and off campus,” said Hassine.