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Alexis Knutsen connects with local Muslim women

University Honors Program junior Alexis Knutsen does not tend to do things in moderation. Since quitting high school at age 15 and traveling to Turkey at 16, she hasn’t been a person to sit back and let things happen.

What began as an interest in learning a language has propelled Alexis, a classics major from Overland Park, to reach out to some little-known Lawrence residents and build a bridge with other KU students to do the same.

This school year, Alexis and her team of female volunteers began meeting weekly with Saudi Arabian, Iraqi and Jordanian women at the Lawrence Islamic Center, to teach them English and help them learn about American culture.

Although the Islamic Center sits just across 19th Street from Oliver Hall, the connection Alexis made for these classes was unprecedented.

“I contacted the Islamic Center, and they thought it was a good idea, so I met with some of the women and asked them, ‘What would you like to learn?’” Alexis says. “They wanted to practice speaking English, because they don’t get to do that very much, and they wanted to meet people and understand American culture.”

Alexis found it surprisingly easy to recruit KU student volunteers for the weekly English classes. She thinks that women, even those who come from different cultures halfway around the world, have a natural connection with other women.

“My class is just women tutoring women, and I try to make it relaxed. The women at the Islamic Center let down their guard. It’s interesting how much cooperation between women there is,” she says.

Last November, she held a potluck dinner to bring together students and faculty from KU with the women at the Islamic Center. She estimates about 50 women attended the dinner.

“Women got to know other women, they were relaxing sitting down talking to each other,” she says. “We had a Saudi woman and a woman from a small town in Kansas talking to each other. It was pretty cool.”

Although her trip to Turkey piqued her interest in learning Arabic, her experience last year in the University Scholars program really brought her interest to the forefront. She was paired with Associate Professor of Arabic Studies Naima Boussofara as her mentor, and not only has she now taken classes from Professor Boussofara, but she also regularly seeks her advice for both her studies and her English classes at the Islamic Center.

Alexis says that part of her inspiration for the English classes also came from a book she read for her University Scholars seminar, called Mountains Beyond Mountains. She says the subject of the book, Dr. Paul Farmer, who has worked to fight tuberculosis in developing countries, inspired her to realize that there are ways to help others even in local communities.

Although very busy with her English students and classics coursework in the present, Alexis is planning a study abroad opportunity for herself in Amman, Jordan, next year. Also, she was awarded the Critical Language Scholarship in February, which is sponsored by the U. S. Department of State and provides a fully funded summer language institute.

Longer-term, she has really taken a liking to teaching English and would like to travel to do so after graduation. She would like to apply to the Peace Corps or for a Fulbright teaching assistantship.

Beyond that, she may pursue graduate school in public policy or international politics. Regardless of what comes, it is safe to say that Alexis will not take the easy way, no matter what she ends up doing.

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