Path to the Podium is a series featuring Boston College professors’ personal stories of how they arrived here, at the pinnacle of their fields and the front of the many classrooms on The Heights.
Professor Natana DeLong-Bas is, to name a few things, a professor of theology at Boston College, an author, a consultant to the U.S. Government and the United Nations and the Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women. Beyond her current impressive accomplishments however, DeLong-Bas' journey to success also serves as a valuable lesson for any student unsure of his or her future path.
DeLong-Bas completed her undergraduate education at Middlebury College, a small liberal arts school in Vermont. She majored in French and secondary education and planned to be a high school French teacher. Seeking to challenge herself beyond French, she tested out a course in Arabic during the short January Term offered at Middlebury. For DeLong-Bas, this decision proved to be life-changing.
She fell in love with the Arabic language, and soon with the religious tradition behind it. The more she learned about Islam, the more connections she found between it and her own Lutheran background, and the more she wanted to explore the faith. By the end of her junior year, she no longer wanted to be a high school French teacher.
DeLong-Bas was accepted into the Arab Studies program in Georgetown University’s graduate school. Still, she was faced with figuring out how to concentrate her efforts and which specific field of study interested her the most. Until this point, DeLong-Bas knew herself to be curious about business and political science, but had never been especially drawn to history.
In a reversal of interests that surprises DeLong-Bas to this day, she chose to complete her Ph.D. in history. History, she says, was the one degree that would allow her to do it all. She was most interested in contemporary issues but knew that it didn’t make any sense to study these issues in isolation from the long tradition behind them. In the end, she decided on studying Middle Eastern history, with an emphasis on Islam in the 18th century.
DeLong-Bas describes two major obstacles that arose between completing her History Ph.D. and her MBA (yes, she pursued her knack for business as well). She took a three year gap in between the two in part because of the dreaded student loans, but also because she couldn’t find anyone willing to work with her in the subject she was interested in.
She wanted to study the Wahhabi tradition in Saudi Arabia in the 18th century, but was repeatedly told that nobody cared about this topic and that it was too old and irrelevant. She refused to give up in the face of this dismissiveness, and eventually found two professors, John Vole and John Esposito, who were willing to work with her.
“If you’re going to spend all this time doing this, make it relevant,” was Esposito’s advice to her in the beginning— words that have impacted DeLong-Bas long past her time at Georgetown. “That’s the best advice I ever received," DeLong-Bas reflects. "Whatever you’re going to invest your time, your passion, your energy in, make it relevant.”
As a result of the tragic attacks on the Twin Towers, DeLong-Bas says, "On September 11, 2001, my topic became the most relevant topic in the world.” The events of that day brought the issues of Islam and extremism to the forefront of political discussion at a time when DeLong-Bas was one of the few experts on both matters.
The repercussions of the attacks are still felt today in her course, “The Religious Quest: Islam and Christianity," taught here at BC. She admits that many students approach her subject with a “fear factor," as most grew up in a post 9/11 era, or even have connections to the attacks themselves. “What I teach has real, deep, personal meaning,” she says of the emotions and experiences that enter into her classroom.
Uncertainty, anger and misunderstanding about the incidents often permeate discussions about Islam in the U.S.
“I feel a real sense of obligation to respond to that, to provide what answers I can, to provide multiple perspectives,” she says of the climate of confusion and curiosity that tends to emerge in her classroom. She welcomes all the challenges and questions that surface in class, seeing them as a manifestation of her students' passion for the subject.
“I would say that my favorite things about being at BC are my students, my students and my students.” She adds that she enjoys the company of her colleagues, but insists that her teaching and research are really what keep her “fresh."
When she's not the in classroom, travel is a vital aspect of DeLong-Bas' research. She has spent lots of time with the King Abdul Foundation for Research and Archives in Saudi Arabia because the foundation offered her access to 18th century materials that were very valuable to her area of interest. She has been to Saudi Arabia a handful of times, and her writing has taken her to conferences in important Islamic locations like Morocco and Qatar.
One of her most important pieces of advice for students was to study abroad during their college years.
“I think going abroad is probably the most important gift you can give to yourself as part of your education,” says DeLong-Bas. Going abroad, in her view, forces you to realize that not everyone does things the same way, and it allows you to engage intensely in a different language.
She attributes her own mastery of Arabic to serious dedication to the language; for a period of close to two years, she received several hours of Arabic instruction every day. Although some may balk at such a time commitment, she insists that it has been more than worth it. Two years of your life, according to DeLong-Bas, is a small price for a lifelong skill in your field of interest.
As for the general life mantra she'd like to impart to her students, DeLong-Bas says: “Find your own answers. If you have things that you really care about, don’t let people box you in with their narrow-mindedness.”
Throughout her own journey, DeLong-Bas continually faced people who attempted to box her in, telling her that her topic was outdated or irrelevant, but she refused to accept this and forged her own path. She emerged as an expert in her field at a time when Islamic studies coincidentally became a subject of paramount importance.
Finally, she urges her students: “Be courageous!" Throughout her career, DeLong-Bas has demonstrated her own inextinguishable courage in pursuing her interests even in the face of doubts, and in tackling difficult subject matter with determination. The boldness with which she pushed through feelings of uncertainty serves as evidence to all confused college students that it’s okay to be unsure of your future, but it's well worthwhile to pursue something that excites and inspires you.
“I’m really passionate about what I do. I really love what I teach. I think it has value and importance and relevance," she concludes. DeLong-Bas, in this way, offers her students not just insight into Islam, but also into the faith and mettle needed to forge their own path in the world.