Mariem Bchir ’20 Among ‘Changemakers’ Awarded Schwarzman Scholarship

Mariem Bchir

At 16, Mariem Bchir joined the protests that led to the ouster of Tunisia’s long-term ruler.

Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution sparked similar rebellions in other parts of North Africa and across the Middle East in what became known as the Arab Spring.

Governments toppled and democracy beckoned. In classrooms, teachers once afraid to criticize leaders now spoke openly. Bchir dreamed of more opportunities for women, entrepreneurs and the poor.

It’s been a tumultuous and sometimes heartbreaking eight years for Tunisia’s young democracy but Bchir ’20 believes education and innovation will prevail. She plans to return home as a leader in both after a journey that’s brought her from North Africa to South Africa to Davidson College. Her next stop: Beijing.

The Schwarzman Scholars announced Wednesday that Bchir has been selected for a spot in the prestigious international program’s class of 2021. She’s the first Davidson student, and the first Tunisian to win the award.

Bchir will pursue a master’s degree in global affairs at Tsinghua University. She’ll learn from professors, lecturers and mentors ranging from world leaders to top educators, economists and CEOs.

The program aims to foster deeper international understanding between China and the rest of the world. Students work on leadership skills as they network with people who can help make their visions reality. Stephen A. Schwarzman, chairman and CEO of the private equity firm The Blackstone Group, founded the scholarship.

Schwarzman describes the 145 scholars, selected from a pool of 4,700, as the world’s changemakers.

They come from 41 countries and 108 universities. Bchir’s classmates include a machinist who built shelters for 26,000 earthquake victims in Nepal; the CEO of a Syrian company that provides refugees with 3D printed prosthetics; and a five-time Carnegie Hall pianist.

“I am inspired by these remarkable, accomplished and dynamic young individuals who will be joining Schwarzman Scholars at a time when its mission is more important than ever. I am excited to see how they contribute to both the Schwarzman College and greater Tsinghua University communities, and ultimately how they will apply themselves as people of consequence in their generation,” Schwarzman said in a news release.

Teaching and Learning

Mariem Bchir says the Arab Spring woke her up to the world’s inequities. The daughter of a dental technician and a computer scientist, she’d enjoyed a comfortable, middle-class existence in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia.

Then in December of 2010, a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire to protest police seizing his vegetable cart. That act spread into a widespread rebellion—fueled by young people—against corruption and authoritarian rule. President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia after 20 years of ruling the country.

Around the region, other protests followed. People celebrated new freedoms as regimes from Egypt to Libya to Yemen imploded. But troubling forces, from civil war in Syria to widespread terrorism, lurked. 

In Tunisia, the economy got worse as established workers lost jobs and young workers had few options. Devastating terrorist attacks created a culture of fear. Some young people ended up at universities abroad; others became ISIS members.

Bchir left her public high school in Tunisia to attend the African Leadership Academy in South Africa. She developed educational training programs for teachers and interned at an innovative school in Slovakia, helping design curriculum for entrepreneurial leadership. At 21, she was recruited to Davidson through the Belk Scholars Program.

Her interest in China started during a trip home to Tunisia after several years abroad. She noticed renewed optimism with new buildings and bridges under construction and wondered where the money came from.

She learned that China was making significant investments in Tunisia, both in infrastructure and through tourism. So Bchir, who speaks English, Arabic, French and some Russian, added Mandarin to her course load.

“I fell in love with Mandarin at Davidson,” Bchir said. “The more I learned about how Beijing is booming in education technology, the more I wanted to understand the culture, and learn about what they’re planning for the region. That’s what made me want the Schwarzman Scholarship.”

At Davidson she’s a Belk Scholar and a Chidsey Leadership fellow majoring in computer science with a minor in educational studies. She has also been a teacher’s assistant and cultural coordinator in the Arabic studies department since her first year. She teaches the Arabic language and Tunisian culture to students at all levels and has also taught French.

“She’s always incorporating different aspects of culture to get students involved,” said Associate Professor and Arab Studies Chair Rebecca Joubin. “She’s given cooking classes and taught about dance, art and history. She’s a very engaged educator and has dedicated her time to training other assistant teachers. This scholarship will bring together many of her interests.”

Joubin says that besides working on her own projects, Bchir collaborates behind the scenes, using her computer skills to help others. In one case she spent many hours helping another student design a website to assist Syrian refugees starting an on-line bakery business.

“Mariem has a generosity of spirt and a passion for learning. She’s always reaching out to help other people,” Joubin said. “She’s not worried about taking classes that will take her out of her comfort zone. She’s always been a selfless leader on campus, and I see her in an exceptional position of leadership in the future.”

Bchir headed to New York last month to interview for the scholarship.

“I was very nervous, but as soon as I entered the interview room I felt very welcome and at ease,” she said. “They were very kind and respectful and genuinely interested in getting to know who I am.

“I was just blown away by the caliber of the students who were there,” she said. “I had some of the most inspiring conversations in the span of just half a day.”

Bchir hopes when she returns to Tunisia she’ll help reform education through better teacher training, especially in middle and high school. The scholarship “is going to allow me to connect with networks that help me build the relationships between China and Tunisia to make that happen.”

Despite the many obstacles, she harbors a vision that by working toward a peaceful democracy, giving women more leadership positions, encouraging entrepreneurship and improving education, the region can thrive:

“We started something. The revolution gave my generation hope, that if we wanted something, we could do it. It helped us think we could be part of something bigger,” she said. “I still believe that.”