Time abroad in Morocco turns into a career path for Olivia Heale

When Olivia Heale '21 started college at Seattle Pacific University, she knew she wanted to study abroad. What she hadn’t expected was how her time in Morocco would impact her future.

Olivia in MoroccoHeale, who originally double majored in Global Development Studies and the Honors Liberal Arts program, later added a third, self-designed major to her repertoire: Middle East and North African Studies. Her interest in North Africa led her to study in Morocco for its geographic diversity. Of the North African countries, Morocco is farthest from the Middle East, but it is still definitively Muslim. It is also close to Europe, with Spain about 12 miles away from its most northern border. This blend of cultures intrigued Heale.

Heale arrived in Meknes, in the northern central area of Morocco, at the start of her junior year in the fall of 2019.

“It was great timing,” Heale said. “So many of my friendships at SPU were established in my first two years living in the dorms on campus. If I would’ve gone any earlier, I would have missed out on that.”

For Heale, the biggest adjustment was to the people in the program. It was a culture shock for Heale to move from a close-knit community at Seattle Pacific to suddenly be studying with students from all over the world.

“My cohort came from all different backgrounds, mostly non-religious,” she noted. “It was hard for me to relate [to everyone].”

As an additional hurdle, her host parents in Morocco didn’t speak English.

“I was very humbled learning the language,” said Heale. “I had to be okay with sounding like a Moroccan toddler. And besides that, I learned so much about communicating without having the right words to say.”

Heale felt challenged to learn everything about Morocco, from the language to its customs. Her efforts to immerse herself into the culture were intense and often left her feeling as if she had forgotten her own identity at times. She struggled to find a balance between full cultural immersion and remembering not to disassociate herself from where she came from and who she was. Despite the challenges she faced, Heale was fascinated by her class, “Gender Studies: The Case of Morocco.”

The course opened her eyes to how women in the region related to religion. The main religion in Morocco is Islam. When Heale learned what the Koran, the central religious text of Islam, said about women and what Muslims interpret their beliefs around, she was fascinated. It sparked a flame of passion within her that has not burned out since her time abroad.

When she returned to Seattle Pacific, she changed the focus of her self-designed major to women and religion and took yet another gender studies class.

As senior year rolled around for Heale, she needed to choose a topic for her Honors Program thesis. Prior to Morocco, she had thought about writing on development ethics or poverty relief. After discovering her enthusiasm for gender studies, she focused on that.

Olivia in Morocco

“My thesis was all about women and religion,” said Heale, “and it all links back to that class I took in Morocco.” The title of Heale’s thesis was, The Whore and the Holy Woman: How Christianity and Islam Slandered Their Leading Ladies.

“Quite the mouthful, but I love it,” she exclaimed. “The project was a really great opportunity for me to continue to explore a field that I hadn’t put a lot of effort into before studying abroad. But, at the time, it felt like the next step for me. And now it is the direction I want to move forward in.”

After graduating from SPU in the spring, Heale joined Seattle-based World Concern. She is working as a Livelihoods and Economic Inclusion Fellow for the Christian international development organization.

When her fellowship concludes, Heale plans on doing independent research on women and religion in developing countries and then attend graduate school.

“There is an emerging field and realization of the importance of studying the connections between religion, development, and women. I am excited to carve out my path in this field and hopefully, someday, be an influence on it all.”

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