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August 2013

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Beth Seymour

Faculty Q-and-A with Dr. Elizabeth M. Seymour

Dr. Elizabeth M. Seymour is instructor in anthropology, communications, and history and women's studies. She teaches a broad array of courses which involve mass media, anthropology, gender studies, history, and culture. Her expertise in Middle Eastern culture has been featured in recent media coverage and in academic presentations. Before coming to Penn State Altoona, Dr. Seymour served as managing editor of “Egypt’s Insight,” a monthly magazine, and chief operating officer of the Pinnacle Group, an import/export firm, both based in Cairo, Egypt. She also served as vice president of marketing and distribution for Founoon, an Egyptian media consortium. Prior to that, she was assistant site director of James Madison University’s Archaeological Research Center. Dr. Seymour has published two book chapters entitled “Bruce Springsteen and the American Soul: Essays on the Songs and Influence of a Cultural Icon” (McFarland, 2011) and “Where Dreams are Found and Lost: Springsteen, nostalgia and identity” (Ashgate, 2012). She is a strong advocate for international study and currently serves as Penn State Altoona’s Interim Education Abroad Coordinator. Dr. Seymour has been active in Penn State’s University Faculty Senate and Penn State Altoona Faculty Senate. She earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Binghamton University.

Q: How did your career path lead to your selection for senior-level executive positions in Egypt?

A: After I finished my Ph.D., I wanted to stay in Egypt and work, but I was not interested in a faculty position. Frankly, I was burned out from the dissertation research and writing, and wanted to explore other careers and make sure that I was committed to being an academic at the university level. So after I defended my dissertation, I went back to Egypt to find a non-academic job. At the time, I didn’t have a job lined up, but from my years of living in Egypt, I had built a strong network of friends and contacts and explored those connections to find the three different positions that I held in Cairo over the two-and-a-half-year period that I worked and lived there in the early 2000’s. My last job was the most interesting and fulfilling. I worked as the director of merchandising and assistant director for music development at Founoon, an Egyptian multi-media company similar to Universal, Time Warner, and Disney.

Q: What did you enjoy most about living in Egypt?

A: I love the people of Egypt. Egyptians are very creative, generous and gracious, and a joy to be around. I love speaking Arabic and getting to know many diverse people in Cairo. Living in a big city is always intoxicating, but Cairo and Cairenes have a particular charm that make living in the city exhilarating. I also love history and culture, and Egypt has been the home of many diverse groups over the centuries, making it a very interesting place to live.

Q: Were there any major adaptations you had to make in your personal life while working in the Middle East?

A: I think you always have to change the way you live when you are in another country for any length of time, and living in Egypt is no different than moving to and living in Australia. There are certain cultural changes that you should make out of respect for the people that you now live among. The challenge is learning how to recognize those changes and making accommodations for them. As a foreigner, you are given some leeway in adapting, but I feel that it is a show of respect to attempt to make reasonable changes when living in a different place. Most of the changes that I had to make while living in Egypt concerned fairly minor, though important, non-verbal communication cues. For example, many Americans who live in small towns or rural areas make eye contact with strangers and chat, in a very personal manner, with acquaintances. Egyptians, as with many other people who live in big cities around the world, tend to avoid casual eye contact with strangers. Also, Egyptians consider it very rude to show another person the bottom of their feet or the soles of their shoes. So the casual way in which many Americans prop their feet up on chairs, tables, or cross their legs can lead to unintended insult. I find that these seemingly insignificant and small cultural cues can cause the most significant communication confusion and possible insult. So learning to observe other people, and then mirroring their behavior, is the advice that I give to anyone who is planning on an extended stay in another place.

Q: Can you share your first impressions as a visitor to Giza?

A: It is hard to adequately describe how beautiful the pyramids are in person. The entire complex is huge, and the location on a plateau in the desert outside the city is spectacular. To really appreciate the scale of the place, you have to get out into the desert and look back at the vista with the pyramids below. It is truly spectacular. One of the things that most people find surprising is that there are many pyramids in Egypt: over 130. The Giza plateau hosts three of the largest, but if you travel by train south, you can easily see many other pyramids in the desert along the route. Some of these are open to visitors, but many are not, and have not been excavated to date.

Q: How do students benefit from their participation in study abroad?

A: Studying abroad, for most people, is a life-changing experience. Spending time in another culture, getting to know a vast array of different people, and learning another language all help to broaden your horizon. Most people comment that their study abroad experience had the greatest single impact on their lives than any other educational experience. Increasingly, employers look for evidence of an international experience in their applicants, as they also realize that this experience leads to more creative thinking, an ability to adapt and think outside the box, and a greater facility for communication across diverse groups of people.

Q: Your love of music is apparent to those who know you best on campus. Did you ever consider pursuing a career in some area of the music industry?

A: I did pursue this career path for two years in Egypt when I was working for Founoon. It was a tremendous experience, but it also made me realize that I wanted to go back to teaching. While I was working in the music industry, I was able to do creative work and work related to academia. I was involved in research related to marketing and advertising, and I worked closely with creative people, particularly artists and musicians in talent development. But I missed teaching. This was the one area of academia that does not transfer into other business fields as easily, and I found that this was the main draw for me to switch careers and look for an academic position. Ironically, pursuing my interest in music led me back to academia.

Q: Is there one particular course you look forward to teaching each year, and if so, why?

A: I love teaching all of my courses, and feel very lucky that I have a position in academia that allows me to teach across various disciplines. Penn State Altoona gives me that opportunity, allowing me to teach courses in Anthropology, Communications, History and Women’s Studies. This flexibility is one of the main reasons that I feel so lucky to be a professor at Penn State Altoona. As for my favorite course to teach, this is a very hard choice for me to make as I enjoy the variety of material that I get to teach. But if I had to choose a course for this coming year, I would have to pick History181 (Introduction to the Middle East) because of the changes going on in the Middle East. While this class is always interesting to teach, it is especially important today as the U.S. is still involved in several wars in the region, and many people in different regional countries are working to change their governments. So it is a particularly interesting period to be teaching and studying the Middle East.