Dec. 14, 2005
WASHINGTON - It was the last day of Natalie Hand's self-funded trip to Syria and the father of her host family had promised her something special. Hand had no idea what the surprise was, so she followed the man on an exhausting day-long hike to the top of a nearby mountain where they met a stranger for dinner. There the two men spoke a language that perplexed Hand, who had only heard the father speak Arabic in the past months.
"I could not figure out why this man had kept this information from us while we were there," Hand said of her initial reaction to his mysterious language. Then only a rising-sophomore at American University, Hand later surmised the two were speaking Kurdish, the language of a people that trace back to the Ottoman Empire and who have long unsuccessfully sought an independent nation-state in the Middle East.
The revelation that being a Kurd was something one had to hide for fear of persecution sparked Hand's intellectual curiosity in the Kurds' experience in global affairs and set her on an arduous academic path, which recently culminated with her being awarded the prestigious Marshall Scholarship, which finances American students to study in the United Kingdom.
Even though she was the first AU student to be named a Marshall Scholar since 1995, anyone that has worked closely with Hand in the past five years was not surprised by her selection. They use words like "go-getter," "unbelievable," "passionate" with an "unabated thirst for knowledge" to describe the School of International Service summa cum laude graduate.
"Natalie has just been unbelievable," Director of American University's Honors Program Michael Mass said. "You can't overemphasize the prestige of this award for Natalie or AU. Everyone is very proud of her."
From the first time head volleyball coach Barry Goldberg met Hand, he noticed her maturity and confidence. "Natalie was a go-getter before she even got here," the 17-year coaching veteran said. "I first met her at a recruiting tournament. She came up to me and introduced herself and said `I'm interested in playing for American, I'm over on this court. Come watch me play.' She knew I couldn't talk to her because of recruiting rules, so she decided to initiate it herself."
Interested in Middle Eastern studies, Hand had narrowed her decision down to George Washington and American. When she made her first trip to campus, Goldberg saw that it was Hand's competitiveness that attracted her to the AU team. "We told her about how our practices worked with the back-and-forth, trash-talking and she liked it," he recalled.
After visiting with Mass and being assured of a place in the University Honors Program, Hand went home and two days later called Goldberg and told her she was going to American. "I'm sure her decision had a lot to do with athletics and her placing in the University Honors Program," Mass said.
With an interest in Middle Eastern studies as a whole, Hand initially took the trip to Syria as a way to see the region and work on her Arabic. After the final day, when she saw her host father's hidden identity, she sought out more information on the Kurds. Her research led her to the Barzani family of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) who had worked with the Center of Global Peace at American.
On the court, Hand was named to the 2001 CoSida Academic All-American second team and led American in digs with 338 in 2002. But balancing her growing academic interests with her time as an Eagle for the increasingly-competitive volleyball team proved to be too much in her junior year. That spring Hand put aside her athletic aspirations as she became more involved in the KDP where she had worked as the public relations consultant.
"When you see your calling, you have to go after it. I love sport, but it's not the only thing in the world."
As the conflict in Iraq further unfolded in 2003, Hand saw the incoming crisis in the Kurdish community and looked for a way to help. Because there was no platform for the Kurds in the United States or internationally, Hand and the Barzani's son, himself a '97 AU grad, decided to create their own. With seed money from the Barzani family, the pair founded the Institute for Kurds, which is dedicated to Kurdish studies in the United States and abroad. "It's kind of the brainchild of both of us," Hand noted.
The Institute, whose board of directors is comprised of Kurdish leaders, including Massoud Barzani, the head of the KDP as well as numerous Kurds of varied socioeconomic backgrounds, has used a multi-layered approach to reach the masses and help boost the Kurdish profile globally. Informing the greater population through education and being a voicebox for the Kurdish perspective in the media is one of the Institute's missions. At grassroots levels, the Institute also aides community-building and development efforts for Kurds trying to relocate into the United States.
"It's extremely rewarding and I hope it's a legacy of mine long after I've gone," Hand said.
Hand's resume also includes being the first woman to be an exchange student at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, writing an unusually ambitious 150 page capstone titled: American and the Islamic Revival: Reconstituting US Foreign Policy and being named for Outstanding Scholarship at the Undergraduate Level, American's highest scholar honor.
For Hand, whose eyes seem permanently affixed to the present and upcoming, it would seem none of her past accomplishments matter. As author Herman Melville once wrote, "The Past is dead, and has no resurrection; but the Future is endowed with such a life, that it lives to us even in anticipation." So it is for Hand who will pursue her graduate work this spring at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London where she has already contacted groups to continue her work for the Institute there and find more ways to increase its effectiveness internationally.
Though American will likely prove to be one of the early chapters in Hand's remarkable academic story, Mass, her Marshall Scholarship endorser, said he'll always remember one of his first images of Hand, the aspiring scholar, from her freshmen year.
"I'll always remember her as the girl from Oregon who was studying Arabic before 9/11," he said.