Parker White: Rhodes Scholar Finalist

During his time as an undergraduate at The University of Alabama, Parker White participated in a broad, well-rounded education in the liberal arts, having been the chapter president of the International English Honors Society Sigma Tau Delta as well as a member of the Blount Undergraduate Initiative, studying English, Classics, and creative writing primarily. During his time at the University, he also co-founded DewPoint, a literary magazine that serves as an outlet for the creative writing of UA undergraduates and other writers. Since graduating, he has served with AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps, was a Rhodes Scholar finalist in 2012, and currently is on a Fulbright scholarship overseas in Cyprus. I had the opportunity to ask Mr. White questions about his time at the University and his current work and studies in Cyprus, an opportunity to which he graciously obliged.

What was your main interest in English and Classics during your time at The University of Alabama?

As a freshman at the University, my primary interest was creative writing. Looking back, I think I had a notion that in order to be good at creative writing, I would need a broad liberal arts foundation. This idea led me to Morgan Hall (where I minored in creative writing in addition to majoring in English), to my Latin classes (which, after an additional painfully difficult year of Greek, morphed into my Classics major), and also to the Blount Undergraduate Initiative, which played a defining and very positive role in making my college experience feel rigorous and individualized.

I maintained my interest in creative writing during my four years at Alabama, but over time, my interest led to questions I wouldn’t have predicted during my first year—regarding such topics as conflict resolution and dialogue workshops, the relationship between state propaganda and literary fiction, and the nature of competing historical narratives related to current sociopolitical situations around the world. These interests also pointed me toward relevant, valuable opportunities I had not previously considered—such as editing for The Crimson White, interning for The University of Alabama Press, and organizing service projects through the English honor society. At the end of my senior year, I also got the rare opportunity to write a creative thesis with the supremely talented Prof. Michael Martone.

After graduating, you worked with the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps for some time, including a 27-month service living with a family in Azerbaijan. How did your education at the University prepare you for such a long-term volunteer commitment?

In some ways I believe it is a natural step, from humanities coursework to volunteer service in underserved communities, especially if that service involves skills and tasks directly relevant to liberal arts studies. My responsibilities as an AmeriCorps Volunteer (with the fantastic organization Impact Alabama, in Birmingham) included coaching a debate team, and teaching writing, researching, and rhetoric skills. My responsibilities as a Peace Corps Volunteer included teaching English and learning a foreign language. My time as a student at the University, and specifically in the Department of English, directly prepared me for these endeavors.

On the other hand, humanities curricula, and perhaps more accurately academia as a whole, can often feel like it is designed to place students in a succession of increasingly smaller rooms where they are having conversations with fewer and fewer people. Through AmeriCorps and through the Peace Corps, I worked with strikingly diverse groups of remarkable people whom I never would have met otherwise. Long-term service projects like these are not feasible or well-suited for everyone, but I highly encourage anyone who is interested to look into them. I believe that this kind of work is often misconstrued as a charitable sacrifice on the part of the volunteer, whereas in fact, it is more accurate to emphasize how enormously the volunteer benefits from the experience, personally and professionally.

I will add here that Azerbaijan is an amazing and complicated place that far too few Americans know about or visit. The family with whom I lived during my service treated me like a son, and for me they became a second family. They are great people who face daily the challenges of living in a village in a developing country.

How did your experiences with the Peace Corps, including teaching and your stay in Azerbaijan, prepare you for your current stay in Cyprus?

In my village school in Azerbaijan, I learned how to coordinate effective lesson planning and teaching with a local counterpart teacher, and how to adapt to a variety of challenges familiar to teachers all over the world, including limited resources, demanding curricula, and students with diverse learning needs grouped together in one class. I also learned how to balance my roles as a foreigner and as a disciplinarian in the classroom. All of these experiences speak directly to my current professional experience in Cyprus, and I believe I am a stronger teacher here thanks to my Peace Corps experience.

In the Peace Corps, I also learned how to speak Azerbaijani, which, after Turkish, is the second most commonly spoken language in the Turkic language family, and which has a high level of mutual intelligibility with Turkish. My host family in Azerbaijan watched Azerbaijani, Turkish, and Russian language television programs. In Nicosia, I have the distinct privilege of working on both sides of the United Nations Buffer Zone that divides the northern and southern parts of Cyprus. I teach at a Greek Cypriot public school three days a week, and at a Turkish Cypriot school in the Turkish Cypriot community two days a week (the headmaster of which received his master’s degree at Auburn University). I have found my limited Turkish skills to be useful on both sides of the city, as my Greek Cypriot school happens to serve several Turkish-speaking minority communities in addition to Greek-speaking communities.

More broadly but perhaps most significantly, the Peace Corps helped me to become more independent, more versatile, more patient, and more open to new challenges and experiences. This development would have served me well in any job, but I find it especially relevant as a Fulbright Fellow.

What drew you to the Fulbright Program and the opportunity to travel to Cyprus?

As with AmeriCorps and Peace Corps, the opportunity to work with the Fulbright Program is an honor. Viewed from a broad historical perspective, I—and other members of similar socioeconomic cohorts—am part of a vanishingly small and incredibly privileged group of people who are blessed not only with a job in a foreign country that welcomes us, but also, in the case of the Fulbright Program, a nametag that reads “Fulbright” and “The United States of America.” By design, The Fulbright Program fosters meaningful cultural exchanges and understanding through rigorous academic pursuits. I am very proud to be a part of it.

I was drawn to apply for Cyprus because of its fascinating history and its current geopolitical environment. Cyprus seemed to me to be at the crossroads of both my Classics studies and my experience with Turkic culture. I was especially interested in Cyprus because it is a peaceful country in a unique position in the realm of conflict resolution. In the Peace Corps, I developed a strong interest in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and this interest in turn reignited my interest in historic racial conflict in the American South. In Cyprus I get to meet many people with incredible life stories, and I get to learn about a complex topic that holds a great deal of significance for many individuals. It’s a fascinating lens through which to consider issues of displaced populations, international law, diplomacy, and education methodology.

Cyprus and Nicosia specifically have long been troubled by violence and social woes, from what I’ve read. Also, the recent mass wave of refugees fleeing Syria has hit everywhere from Greece to Hungary. What’s your perspective on the current socio-political situation in Cyprus?

For some time now, the majority of the population of the island of Cyprus has been Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians, and the largest minority has been Turkish-speaking Sunni Muslims. There are also Greek-speaking Muslims, Turkish-speaking Christians, and a variety of other minority groups. In 1974, following a series of other events, Turkey invaded Cyprus (some Turkish Cypriots argue that it is more accurate to say that Turkey “intervened in” Cyprus), which further incited several major population shifts on the island. Several Greek-speaking people I work with today on the south side of Nicosia, for example, identify as refugees whose families moved from northern Cyprus during the violence of 1974. Several of the people I work with on the north side of Nicosia recall the period of time pre-1974 when they and other Turkish-speaking Cypriots in the south moved into enclaves and were subject to a variety of discriminatory economic restrictions as well as violence carried out by extremist groups.

One consequence of the events of 1974 is the current division of Cyprus and of its capital, Nicosia, where I live, into southern and northern parts. This partition makes Nicosia the only divided capital city in Europe. The government in the south is the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus. The government in the north calls itself “The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus,” and is recognized only by Turkey. I encourage anyone interested in this topic to do some research about it, as I don’t want to attempt an inadequate summary of this controversial issue here.

My own most significant take-away regarding the socio-political scene here is that Cyprus is a remarkably peaceful place today, despite—but perhaps also because of—its complicated history and diverse culture. I hear Greek and Turkish spoken on both sides of Nicosia, and directly outside my bedroom window I hear both church bells and the mosque’s call to prayer every day. Violence, due to the division or otherwise, seems very rare here. Cyprus is considered to be one of the countries with the lowest rates of violent crime in the European Union.

I am happy to say that I have felt very welcome here in Cyprus. I get to live in a historic district surrounded by Venetian walls built hundreds of years ago, and it’s still only an hour away from what must be some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. I have also had the chance to foster many meaningful personal relationships with people here. I truly love living here.

How do you see your experiences with Fulbright and Cyprus aiding you?

Geographically, Cyprus is located directly in the middle of the route of the large numbers of people currently leaving Syria and its neighboring countries for Europe. However, for legal and geographical reasons, Cyprus is not as popular a destination as Greece, Germany, or Sweden. My understanding is that the number of asylum seekers in Cyprus numbers in the hundreds or low thousands, whereas similar groups in Greece and Germany number in the tens or hundreds of thousands. However, the unprecedented nature of this influx of people does seem to present serious policy challenges for Cyprus, as it does for many other countries, including, I imagine, the U.S. My very limited expertise on the subject mostly ends there. My impression is that Cypriots are themselves engaged in peaceful efforts to respond to this challenge.

Some other Fulbright Fellows and I have been volunteering as English teachers at Cyprus’s main immigrant reception center, what some people refer to as a “refugee camp.” (The majority of the people at the center can be accurately described as “asylum seekers,” some of whom are applying for refugee status; generally, individuals who are subsequently recognized as refugees leave the center.) Currently, about 300-400 people live at the center, the majority of whom arrived, I believe, on two separate boats, one in 2014 and one in 2015; these individuals mostly identify as Palestinians who have been living in Syria and Lebanon. (There have been a number of different boat arrivals, and I am not able to present a more comprehensive description of them here.) There are many other people at the center as well, including people from Iran, Yemen, Somalia, Russia, Turkey, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The most commonly spoken first language is Arabic, followed by Farsi. The English language skills of the individuals at the center range on a wide spectrum, and there is a clear need for English language education.

I have also been interning with the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. My primary responsibility is to conduct policy research regarding refugee integration in Cyprus.

Moreover, I have been formally studying both Turkish (with a private tutor) and modern Greek (at The University of Cyprus).

In the fall of 2016, I will enroll as a Master of Public Policy degree candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School, where I plan to concentrate on international and global affairs. These experiences in Cyprus, in addition to my work as an educator, speak directly to the professional interests I hope to pursue during and after graduate school.

During your time at The University of Alabama, you were the president of Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honor Society, and founded the undergraduate literary magazine DewPoint. What was starting a publication like while still in school?  How would you recommend that students get involved during their undergraduate years?

Starting DewPoint was so much fun. It was also an immense undertaking and a lot of hard work. I co-founded DewPoint with Mia Bass Toole, Meg Brandl, Josh Clark, John Stuart Tilley, Lauren Adams, and many other Sigma Tau Delta members. Its publication also would not have been possible to achieve without the support of several supervisors, including Dr. Deborah Weiss, Dr. Yolanda Manora, Dr. David Ainsworth, Dr. Catherine Davies, Dr. Albert Pionke, Dr. Patti White, Prof. Michael Martone, and Prof. Ashley McWaters. We were also lucky to have the support of several of the MFA students associated with Black Warrior Review, including Jenny Gropp Hess and Brian Oliu, and of several individuals outside the Department of English, including Dr. Bob Halli, Dean Emeritus of the Honors College:  Jeanie Thompson, Executive Director of the Alabama Writers’ Forum; and Dan Waterman, Editor-in-Chief of The University of Alabama Press.

Even though working on DewPoint often meant a little less sleeping in on the weekends, we got to work on something we loved, and toward a goal we believed in: fostering and showcasing the best creative and academic writing in The University of Alabama’s Department of English. I consider myself very lucky to have been part of such a worthwhile project. I applaud the students who have continued to do all the work necessary to create the journal every year. I am consistently impressed with the quality of each successive issue. (DewPoint recently published its fifth annual issue.)

Sigma Tau Delta, the Department of English, and the University as a whole naturally have a high turnover rate of students. This shifting in the student population makes annually sustained projects, like DewPoint, more difficult, but it also means there are new students and new ideas every year. I think that students should take advantage of the time and resources they have at the University, and be proactive about ideas that excite them personally and that are worthwhile to a wide community of people.

More specific recommendations: Slash Pine Press, The University of Alabama Press, The Crimson White, The Capstone (student radio station), tutoring through the Tuscaloosa County School System, the Blount Undergraduate Initiative, and the University Honors Program are all incredible opportunities available to undergraduates. Also, if you can, study abroad!

Do you have any particular books or reading materials that you would recommend to people who are going overseas?

I recommend reading history about the place where you are traveling. For anyone interested in Azerbaijan, Armenia, the Caucasus, or long-term ethnic conflict and competing historical narratives, read Black Garden by Thomas de Waal. Also read The Ghost of Freedom by Charles King, Azerbaijan Diary by Thomas Goltz, and the unknown gem of a novel Ali and Nino by the mysterious Kurban Said. My Cyprus reading is a bit more lacking. Read The Cyprus Conspiracy by Brendan O’Malley and Ian Craig, or the travel writing Bitter Lemons by Lawrence Durrell, who himself was an English teacher at a school that neighbors my own Greek Cypriot school and that, about one hundred years ago, was the elite boys-only high school in correspondence with my school, which was originally an elite girls-only school.

Is there any last piece advice you’d like to give to current students?

Even if you are not sure what your interests or goals are, run with what you know, set ambitious goals and work hard to achieve them, with the understanding that these goals will almost certainly change. Value your failures as learning experiences. Value your relationships with your peers and especially with your teachers. To the extent that I have been successful, I feel like so much of this success has come directly from opportunities given to me by my teachers—I am indebted especially to so many of the folks in the UA English Department, which I still consider my home when I return to visit campus.

You are welcome to contact me at parkerwhite3@gmail.com.

 

 

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