By: Diane Stirling
Career breaks happen for many people because they are in the right place, at the right time, with the right stuff. That was the case for Dina Meky, whose MLIS graduate assistantship meant returning to America, enrolling in the School of Information Studies (iSchool), pursuing new library educational and career tracks, and helping Syracuse University’s Bird Library organize a unique Arabic- and Persian-language book collection.
With an American mother and an Egyptian father, Dina is a dual citizen who lived in Egypt until she graduated college. She completed her high school years and undergraduate journalism degree there, returning to the U.S. in the summers.
She was working as a library assistant at the American University of Cairo, contemplating graduate programs, when a unique opportunity intervened. A co-worker and SU alumnus urged Dina to explore the iSchool's MLIS program, and it happened that Bird Library then needed someone with a unique set of skills to catalogue hundreds of donated Arabic and Persian language books.
Dina decided to apply to the program, almost on a whim. Soon thereafter, though, Syracuse University responded, inviting her to enroll in the MLIS program on a graduate assistantship. So Dina came to the U.S. last July, and began organizing stacks and studying in MLIS classes. The decision was a given, she said, because she had worked in libraries since her freshman year of college, and the more she did it, the more she found out how much she loved reference work and digging up answers for people. “I wasn’t one of those people who struggled about what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to go into writing and media, and I did. And in my junior year, I realized I Ioved being surrounded by databases and reference questions–and the more bizarre the questions, the better,” she acknowledged.
The books Dina has catalogued on “are gems from all over the Middle East,” she explains, “from medieval travel accounts, to government surveys, to conference papers. It’s an excellent resource for anyone interested in the Middle East. A lot of it is academic writing, but there also are literature books, with a lot of folklore and poetry thrown in.”
Fluent in both English and Arabic, Dina can fully enjoy the materials, but there’s a technical side to the work, too. “It’s all in Arabic, so there is the translation/transliteration aspect. Adding it all into the online database and maintaining cataloging standards was something I had to learn. It didn’t help that Arabic is not a really widely understood or used language in the U.S., so, for example, not only are the characters completely different, but Arabic reads from right to left, which is the opposite of English. But whoever is learning it, it’s a difficult language, but a very deep and beautiful one,” she said.
Balancing contrasting worlds, lifestyles, and viewpoints is something Dina seems to have a natural capacity for accepting, and she has illustrated that characteristic repeatedly. Growing up in an Americanized home, she noted, “American culture is not unfamiliar to me–it’s the same with the Egyptian culture; the transition is seamless. I have two personalities–one for here, and one for there,” she joked, given the polarity of the societies.
Likewise, Dina endured very different paces and perspectives between her jobs as news reporter and library assistant early in her career. As a reporter intern while in journalism school, she covered a number of governmental and social issues. That timing meant she was in that role during the 18-day Egyptian Revolution of 2011. Much of the time, she and her family had little information and didn’t know from one day to the next the state of their government or the country’s leadership.
Based on that background, Dina has been telling her younger siblings about how unique her opportunities are here. “I haven’t even been here a year yet, but I appreciate the opportunities so much [they] are not readily available anywhere in the world. Growing up where I grew up, and knowing how things worked in places other than the States, it makes you appreciate things in a way that I think most people don’t do,” she explained. “When you come from a place, wherever it may be, where culture is so strong and religion has a strong presence in your life, whether you are religious or not, it makes you into a very different person. American culture is great because there is no [single] culture–because America is just a mix of all these different beliefs and peoples. People can come here and be whatever they want. Here, you can do whatever you want to do, more or less without government intervention.”
Loves Her Studies
Dina is happy with her change of course. “I love what I’m studying. I think I enjoy this more than what I studied as an undergrad. This is my first time studying in America, and the people couldn’t have been more sweet and welcoming. I could not ask for a better program; the support and attention my professors give us is amazing. They want us to succeed and they are constantly sending us emails about jobs, internships, funding opportunities, conferences. It’s something I haven’t experienced before, so I do appreciate it,” she added.
Dina’s assistantship will continue next year. Since she is almost done with the cataloguing project, she’s begun to work with bibliographers at Bird library. They are looking at buying books now to potentially build an Arabic collection for Syracuse’s Middle Eastern Studies Program, and she is helping on that initiative. She’s also is working in another aspect of library science, fulfilling a position as a student assistant at the health sciences library at SUNY-Upstate Medical School—as usual, taking a double-sided approach to the physical and academic aspects of her life.