Dream of study in U.S. comes true for Tunisians

Group of people waving (State Dept.)
The 2016–2017 Thomas Jefferson Community College Program scholars from Tunisia (State Dept.)

When Houda Hermassi’s mother heard on the radio about a scholarship that allows Tunisian students to study in the United States for free for a year, she purposely did not tell her daughter. She thought she was too young.

But Hermassi’s English professor also knew about the Thomas Jefferson Scholarship Program and told her, “You must be one of those scholars.”

Now, after studying network management at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, interning with a U.S. information technology company and finishing a technical degree back home, the 25-year-old is a systems administrator in Tunis for Cimpress, a global leader in custom printing.

The year abroad “was very helpful to get this job,” says Hermassi, originally from Kasserine, Tunisia. “Being alone in a new world is very good. You learn more. And who in the world does not want to study in the U.S.?”

Applications are being accepted online through November 27 for students to spend 2018–2019 at U.S. community colleges and universities. Sixty-five or more scholarships will be awarded. The U.S. Department of State–funded exchanges cover travel, tuition and books, and a living allowance.

Winners are chosen from throughout Tunisia, including many from its poorest governorates, or provinces. Students compete for separate Thomas Jefferson scholarships to attend either U.S. community colleges or universities for a one-year, nondegree program.

Those applying for the community college scholarship must be studying applied engineering, business administration and management, information technology or tourism and hospitality management. The undergraduate scholarship program accepts students from a broader range of fields.

Dhia Eddine Attafi, 20, of Kef, Tunisia, is earning a certificate in business management at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida. Valencia has four Thomas Jefferson scholars and 1,500 other international students among its 60,000 students.

Group of people, with one man gesturing (State Dept.)
The scholarships give Tunisians practical experience through community service and professional internships. (State Dept.)

At home, Attafi attends ISET Nabeul, a technology university. He intends to become a civil engineer, “but I need to know about the world of business,” he says, to reach his goal of opening his own engineering company one day.

Hermassi and Attafi praised the U.S. system, which allows students to choose classes and take part in clubs and extracurricular activities.

The scholarship program, run by education and development nonprofit IREX, also helps 450 alumni in Tunisia build on their experiences and network for opportunities. IREX’s manager in Tunis, Adel Lagha, says, “We want them to be the leaders of tomorrow.”

The State Department says the aim is to give young people a deeper understanding of American culture, along with the leadership and professional skills to contribute to Tunisia’s growth and development.

The scholars are among 300,000 visitors who come to the United States on official exchanges each year and 1 million international students who attend U.S. institutions. International Education Week will be marked November 13–17 with events in Washington and on hundreds of campuses.