The Unstoppable Mona Rowan

How a survivor of the Lebanese Civil War came to teach Arabic at Stonehill and the lessons—in addition to language—that she imparts.

By Maura King Scully

Arabic Instructor Mona Rowan“I still don’t believe this happened to me, but I am confident it was divine intervention.”It’s been 40 years, and Mona Rowan, who is now an Arabic instructor at Stonehill, is still baffled by the twists her life has taken. “I grew up in Lebanon, in a beautiful Christian town on the Mediterranean where you wake up to the sound of the church bells ringing, our neighbor’s rooster and the aroma of jasmine filling the air. We all knew each other since birth, and most of the neighborhood attended Sacré Coeur, a French Catholic school. In one night, it was all taken away.”

In 1976, Rowan was an 18-year-old, first-year student at American University of Beirut when she found herself in the crossfire of the Lebanese Civil War. Hit in the face and hand by stray bullets, her jaw and left hand were shattered—grave injuries that left her with little hope. One of her professors was from Boston, however. “He told me Boston has the best doctors in the world, so that’s where I should go,” she recalls. Coincidentally, Rowan had an aunt who lived in the area, so she and her father came to Boston in 1977 to seek medical care at Massachusetts General Hospital. The plan was that she would spend a year in the U.S. and then return to Lebanon.

Things Did Not Go as Planned.

“When we met with the doctors, they told me they had never rebuilt a jaw from angle to angle,” she says. “They said, ‘We’re going to try this, and you’re going to be the guinea pig.’” As Rowan recounts, they did try, and failed. And then failed again. Ultimately, over a decade, Rowan underwent 32 surgeries to completely restructure her jaw. Through it all, she managed to earn a degree in public relations from Rhode Island College in 1984. “In between surgeries, I would go to class with a drainage tube hanging from my nose and an opened trachea to breathe, but I had to go with the original plan of educating myself no matter what. People would stare at me.” Yet, Rowan persisted. “I’m a survivor,” she says.

In addition to strength of character, she was able to draw upon her ability in languages, thanks to her Lebanese education. “From kindergarten on, my classes were in both French and Arabic,” she explains. “In high school, I began taking English and was fluent in all three languages by 12th grade.” Recognizing her aptitude for languages, Rowan went on to earn a second bachelor’s in French and Spanish and then a master’s in foreign languages and education—degrees that put her on her current path.

A Tale of Two Campuses

Rowan is in the unusual position of serving as a shared full-time Arabic instructor at two institutions: Stonehill and nearby Wheaton College in Norton. Through the partnership, formally launched this academic year, Elementary Arabic is offered at both schools; Intermediate Arabic is taught at Wheaton, with Advanced Arabic at Stonehill.

“Both Stonehill and Wheaton students can take the upper level Arabic courses. This ensures we have a healthy enrollment in these courses, which is wonderful,” notes Dean of Faculty Maria Curtin. “It took a year to iron out the details—it took extra planning and time to develop this agreement—but it’s well worth it. Mona is the perfect person to do this. She’s unstoppable.”

Professor Juan Carlos Martin, chair of foreign languages, is enthusiastic about the College’s expanded language offerings, which now include an Arabic minor. “The interest in Arabic has been growing,” he says. For the first time this past fall semester, Elementary Arabic filled up with 25 students. “That says to me we’re on the right track,” he notes. In fact, according to the American Language Association, Arabic is the fastest-growing language on American college campuses.

“Mona has done a tremendous job of encouraging students, going out of her way to accommodate them,” Martin continues. “Before the partnership, she did a lot of advanced work with students as directed studies. Her flexibility and willingness to address the students’ needs is part of the program’s success.”

“I’ve spoken with students who came to Stonehill because we had Arabic,” Martin says. “Now, the Arabic minor opens up opportunities for students who are interested in other careers, like criminology and political science.” It has even expanded the countries where students study abroad, he notes. In addition to popular destinations in Europe and Australia, Stonehill students have branched out to Morocco, Qatar, Oman and Jordan.

One of those is Kayla Solis ’17, a psychology major who is spending the spring semester in Jordan, studying Arabic and intercultural communications. “The Middle East is a very misunderstood region,” Solis explains. “I want to educate myself, so I can educate others. Initially, I wanted to take Arabic because I figured it would make me more marketable,” she says, noting that her goal is to work for the FBI in counterterrorism. “But Professor Rowan made me fall in love with the language. When I told people I was taking Arabic, the common reaction was ‘Good luck,’ because it’s so difficult. But the first day of class, Professor Rowan said, ‘I’m going to have you reading Arabic by the end of the week’—and she did. She’s so welcoming and approachable. And what she has overcome in her life is inspirational.”

Timothy DeLouchrey ’19, an English and political science major, agrees. “Professor Rowan is so enthusiastic. It’s clear that she loves to teach. She’ll do anything to get the point across—like showing us weird music videos to help us learn the Arabic alphabet.” DeLouchery was excited to discover that Stonehill offered Arabic. “I wanted to try something new—I had taken Spanish in high school—and I’m so glad I did. I love it. It was bizarre at first because we don’t even use the same alphabet. It’s so gratifying to look back and see how far I’ve come.” While students are quick to praise Rowan, she is quick to express her gratitude. “Many thanks to all those who worked hard to make the Arabic minor a reality, especially Dean Maria Curtin.”

Life Lessons

Rowan is equally effusive in her praise of Stonehill students, who are about the same age as her own two children, Andrew and Mia, a fact that helps her to relate to them, she says. “The students taking Arabic are the crème de la crème. It’s a very difficult language. They’re willing to dive in, get out of their comfort zones and read right to left with a different alphabet.” In the four years since she’s been teaching at Stonehill, “I’ve heard from former students whose experience in Arabic made a difference in them getting jobs or into graduate schools. After all, if you can handle Arabic, you can handle anything. You have to work very hard. I tell students it doesn’t just happen—you have to put the work in.”

In a way, teaching at Stonehill allows Rowan, who enjoys singing, dancing, traveling and cooking, to make up for lost time. “I didn’t have the typical college experience, because I was in and out of the hospital. Being able to be a part of this community brings me a lot of joy. I’m a product of Catholic schools, so being a professor in this environment is terrific.”

It’s through the lens of her Catholic upbringing that Rowan views her life. “I am convinced that my faith played a big role in being saved from dying. It’s a divine intervention that God has had a plan for me. It was not time for me to go before teaching a few classes and making a difference in my life as well as my students’ lives,” she says.

Rowan teaches a beginners Arabic course at Stonehill. By the end of the first month, she says, most of her students know the alphabet and are beginning to read  Arabic text.Rowan also enjoys sharing her firsthand knowledge of the Middle East, which is more nuanced than the one-sided portrayal in the media. “I tell students I come from the country where the alphabet was invented, that’s home to the world’s three major religions. There’s so much history, culture and natural beauty.”

And if her example is instructive to the young men and women in her classes, she’s glad for that, too. “I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. I believe that everything happens for a reason. I never thought I would come to America and teach Arabic. But you don’t know what your future is. From everything I’ve been through, I’ve learned that life is not easy. You must be strong and never give up. My experience has made a better person out of me, where I can understand and appreciate life’s ups and downs no matter how tough they are.”