As published in The Saginaw News: 31 July 2012
SAGINAW, MI— Stores are already beginning to roll out their back-to-school advertising and students, but Shawn Lent’s back-to-school shopping list this year includes a suitcase instead of a backpack.
The Thomas Township native, who works with an arts integration program implementing arts programs in public middle schools through Columbia College in Chicago, is packing her bags for a semester lecturing at the Academy of Arts’ High Institute of Ballet in Cairo, Egypt.
Lent, 34, has won a one-semester Fulbright Scholar grant for the trip, where she will teach dance classes and lecture on community arts theory and the role of artists in civil society and education.
“I hope to make some change in how dance is taught and [in] education in general,” she said.
Lent grew up in Thomas Township and graduated from Hemlock High School and Saginaw Arts & Sciences Academy in 1996.
Lent said her interest in Egypt and the surrounding region began when she traveled to Morocco, Egypt and Qatar in 2010 with a group from the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations.
“I did this tour and got a lot of contacts in the region, several in Cairo,” she said. “Then suddenly, my new friends were busy starting a revolution. I thought it would be a really great opportunity to research the role of artists in a revolution and in rebuilding a society.”
To apply for the Fulbright grant, Lent returned to Egypt to get an invitation from an institution there. She returned to the U.S. empty-handed. After her return, the U.S. State Department announced that because of the recent revolutions and unrest in Libya and Egypt, applicants hoping to travel to those countries would not need to include an invitation from a host institution in their application packets.
Lent assembled the other 12 to 14 aspects of the application and sent it in. Then the waiting started.
“It’s a whole year process, waiting to find out [if you got the grant],” Lent said.
The application was due last August and finalists were notified between October and January. The final announcement of recipients was made in April or May this year.
Dance has always been one of her passions, Lent said. She studied ballet and jazz at Bohaty’s School of Dance in Thomas Township and began studying contemporary dance in college. She earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in theater and dance from Milikin University in Decatur, Ohio. She did some post-graduate work in London and earned a master’s degree in arts management with a focus in arts for youth and community development from Columbia.
While she has not danced professionally “for a while,” Lent said, she continues to learn new forms of dance.
“I’ve been learning a lot more folkloric dances lately,” she said. She teaches many orthodox Jewish students, who have taught her their traditional dances.
Lent’s grant is for one semester, but she said she hopes to extend it for the entire academic year. If she does not get the extension, she will continue teaching dance as a volunteer in either Palestine or Bosnia.
“Both are options right now,” she said. “I would like to volunteer at a dance school in Palestine.”
“I taught [in Bosnia] last spring as part of a youth festival in an area that hasn’t been rebuilt [after Bosnian War],” she said. “They were looking for arts teachers as volunteers.”
One of the biggest challenges facing Lent will be the language barrier. She will teach her classes at the Academy of the Arts in English, but her limited knowledge of Arabic will make daily tasks difficult.
“I’m trying to study as much as I can,” she said. “When I was [in Cairo] the first two times, I could get by. I’ll just do the best I can. As long as I can make the hour-long commute to work and back, I’ll be fine.”
Another worry for Lent is safety in the country still plagued by unrest and fear of foreigners.
“A couple of weeks ago, state TV put out a number of (public service announcements with the) message ‘Don’t trust foreigners, they’re all spies,’” she said. “(The anti-foreigner sentiment) was strong when I was there last summer, but even more so after the ads. I just hope that I’ll be welcomed and accepted.”
Foreigners, especially foreign women, need to be especially vigilant and aware of their surroundings, she said.
“I met with the Egyptian consulate here in Chicago, and they gave me a list of information on how not to get kidnapped,” she said. “There’s a couple of figures on sexual harassment. [Cairo] is worse than any other city in the Middle East.”
Lent said that close to 98 percent of foreign women visiting Cairo report experiencing some form of sexual harassment while in the city.
“But I have friends there,” Lent said. “I know they’ll have my back.”
Lent said her parents, Jim and Kaye Lent of Thomas Township, are “still reacting” to her decision to travel to Egypt.
“They’re nervous because I’m an only child,” she said. “They just kept saying, ‘Mixed feelings. We have mixed feelings.’”
Lately, however, she said her mother has been “constantly posting about it” on Facebook.
“She must have accepted it if she’s telling people about it,” Lent said.
The Fulbright Scholarship program is sponsored but the U.S. Department of State and funds scholarships for U.S. faculty and professionals to travel and teach abroad.
Lent is one of 1,100 Fulbright grant recipients for the 2012-13 academic year.