Meet our new dean!
Published: December 7, 2017
Assalamu alaikum, everyone! Guess what?! We will have a new dean at Al-Wāḥa this summer! I Skyped with Dr. Sara Shams Nimis this week to learn more about her and her vision for Al-Wāḥa as its new dean.
Dr. Sara Shams Nimis, whose Arabic name “shams” means “sun,” previously served as Assistant Dean of Al-Wāḥa last summer, as well as the first summer that the Village opened in 2006. I had the pleasure of working with her last summer, and she truly brought a fierce and cheerful disposition (which matched her Arabic name!) to the camp. Not only was she a great source of emotional and professional support for me, my colleagues and the villagers, but also an incredibly innovative person who took the initiative to build upon the traditions of the camp. For example, the late afternoon musalsal or daily drama, which quickly became a Village favorite, was a project started by Shams. She wrote and narrated the first installments of the musalsal and later passed the baton on to other counselors to encourage them to use their imagination and their Arabic skills to bring the stories that they wanted to tell to life.
Aside from serving as Assistant Dean at Al-Wāḥa, Shams has had a long history at Concordia Language Villages. She served as Junior Counselor at the French Language Village and has participated in both Lac du Bois as well as Les Voyageurs. She also ran Al-Wāḥa’s Language Training Center this October. In addition, she has previously sent her own children to Al-Wāḥa, which gives her another perspective on how to run the camp!
Aside from her experience at Concordia Language Villages, Shams also has an impressive and multifaceted educational background. She has a BA in French and International Studies from Macalester College in Minnesota, a Master’s in Political Science from Miami University in Ohio, a PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies from Georgetown, and has extensively studied the Arabic language at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad at the American University in Cairo. Shams points to her time studying abroad in Morocco during her undergraduate years at Macalester as the experience which first sparked her interest in global and cultural issues. Of all of the subjects she has studied, she has not yet found a subject quite as interesting as Islamic Studies.
When asked to talk more about her view on Al-Wāḥa, Shams points out that Al-Wāḥa is very unique in that it melds two very different cultures, Arab culture and North American summer camp culture. The two cultures had the potential to be at odds with each other, but somehow, the combination worked! She is excited to come back to Al-Wāḥa as its new dean as it will allow her to experiment further with different ways of melding these two aspects of camp culture together and to teach others how to be comfortable in different contexts. Also, since tensions can arise from having counselors from all sorts of backgrounds (some Arabs, some Arab-Americans, and some who have studied the language but who haven’t visited an Arabic-speaking country), she looks forward to improving upon how counselors communicate with each other and with villagers to try to make everyone feel welcome, at home, and eager to contribute to Al-Wāḥa. One way in which she plans to do so is by making sure that everyone is clear on Al-Wāḥa’s mission and by having a motto that counselors can repeat to each other whenever they feel overwhelmed in order to help them to re-focus.
While administrative roles can be challenging, Shams especially loves one aspect of the job, and that is helping counselors think about what they bring to the Village and being a facilitator in terms of helping them build on their skills and achieve their visions for the camp. This year, Shams hopes to focus on counselor and villager retention, as she believes that this will give counselors the opportunity to build upon what they achieved in previous years and continue to grow and excel in their positions. She also wants to focus on making Al-Wāḥa a more Arabic rich environment, in terms of both language and culture. Specifically for the language learning aspect of the camp, Shams wants to work on making learning Arabic more effortless, for example, by holding more activity sessions rather than formal class time. She looks to Les Voyageurs as a model for this type of learning, noting that simply by having villagers do things in the French language, like teaching them how to set up a tent, how to canoe, how to build a fire…they very quickly learned the vocabulary. In other words, she wants villagers to be busily doing things in Arabic, rather than just thinking about the language.
Shams would encourage anyone to learn a new language, as it opens up more opportunities, both personal and professional, for the learner. Learning another language allows students to experiment with different aspects of their personality and to explore different ways of expressing themselves. For example, one chooses what they say more carefully and even listens differently when using a different language!
We are beyond excited to have Shams as our new dean at Al-Wāḥa, and we hope you are as well! See you next summer at Al-Wāḥa, insha’ allah!