Ashley Hayes '12 learned a great deal about herself on study-abroad trips to Italy and Hungary as a Nazareth College student. “Both experiences opened my eyes to other parts of the world and made me realize how much you can learn when you push yourself outside of your comfort zone,” she says.
No hyperbole there. Hayes, who graduated with a degree in art education, now serves as an art teacher and administrator at the private Pioneers Baccalaureate School in the Palestinian city of Nablus. The nonprofit aims to utilize the best of modern pedagogy, while staying true to Palestinian roots.
In an area that saw rocket fire two months after her arrival, her resolve has been tested more than once. During a surprise visit from the Ministry of Education last spring, who’d heard the school had started an art program, the dignitary questioned her approach – one that appeared to threaten the development of a national identity and sense of pride – for nearly an hour. Hayes argued that it was possible to teach traditional art forms while offering new and meaningful opportunities for critical thinking and expression.
“Having someone question everything I believe and do was incredibly difficult,” she says, recalling her tears after the man left, “but the experience solidified my purpose.”
About a week after that visit, the dignitary called the school’s principal to express hopes that Hayes would share her teaching methods with other art teachers in Nablus, and he has visited multiple times since to thank her for the work she is doing.
“Even as a student, Ashley was always looking for an opportunity to do more and give more,” says her former advisor, Tracie Glazer, program director for art education and director of Saturday Art for Children & Teens at Nazareth. “Sometimes I’d actually have to stop her and say, ‘Ashley, you need to focus on you.’”
Hayes says her personal connection to children affected by global conflicts was formed through Nazareth’s Partners for Serving program, which introduced her to Mary’s Place, a refugee outreach center in northwest Rochester. “Mary’s Place became my family, and gave me a sense of community in Rochester,” explains the Wilson, N.Y. native. “And it inspired my interest in international studies. I believe that children everywhere have the right to a quality education, not just students in the United States or other westernized countries.”
Currently studying Arabic, Hayes made the decision to move to Occupied Territory despite letters, e-mails, and phone calls from family members concerned about her welfare. While daily life can be difficult – the city shuts down when it rains, electricity fails for long periods of time, buses run not on a schedule but once they’re full – she says she never feels unsafe, and that media coverage of the Middle East is much too limited to offer a full picture of Palestine’s “extremely hospitable culture.”
Hayes feels privileged to promote the benefits of a liberal arts and professional education like the one she received at Nazareth, an education she credits with giving her an appreciation of cultural diversity as well as the strength and confidence to work in such a challenging place.
“I left Nazareth with the desire to make a positive impact on the world,” she says. “To this day, I still reflect on things I learned in my ethics, religion, and anthropology classes. These things have given me the grounding I need to feel confident about who I am and what I want to achieve.”
Ashley Hayes '12 with a student from Pioneers Baccalaureate School in the Palestinian city of Nablus.