The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Karim Hamdy Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Chris Petersen.

October 10, 2014


Abdel Karim S. Hamdy was born in a cave outside of the city of Gabès, Tunisia in 1952. He was raised with four brothers and a sister by a stay-at-home mother and a working father. His family practiced subsistence farming and his father was a laborer in construction. Hamdy entered school shortly after Tunisia gained its independence from France in 1956. He did well as a student and showed a strong facility for language, first learning Arabic, then French, then English. He began his undergraduate studies at Université de Tunis in 1971.

In Tunis, Hamdy majored in Civil Engineering and received a modest scholarship that allowed him to finish his undergraduate years without working. Hamdy took advantage of this flexibility to become involved in student affairs, first by helping to form a student government at the university and later through volunteering for the group. He also took a few trips abroad, including a five-week visit to the Soviet Union with a group of other high-achieving students.

In 1974 Hamdy received his B.S. in Civil Engineering and began graduate work at Université de Tunis. By 1977 Hamdy had graduated cum laude with a master's degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering, writing a thesis titled "Water Disposal and Treatment for the City of Sousse, Tunisia." Following the completion of this degree, Hamdy spent two months at the Goethe Institute in West Berlin, engaged in an intensive study of German.

Returning to Tunis, Hamdy began work as a civil engineer at Tunisie Consult, a Danish firm. He worked there for four years before learning about a scholarship opportunity for Tunisians wishing to study in the United States. His application was accepted and in 1981 he traveled overseas to attend Oregon State University, seeking a Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Hamdy became involved in student affairs at OSU as well. He founded the Tunisian Student Association, the Friends of Palestine group, and the North African Student Association. He also served as the ASOSU senator for foreign students in 1984. During his first year on campus, Hamdy worked at the OSU Office of International Agriculture as an interpreter and in the Corvallis Arts Center, teaching French to children. He also taught French at Linn-Benton Community College from 1984 to 1992. Hamdy's interest in language further led him to begin taking advanced courses in English as a Second Language (ESL) and Adult Education.

By 1985 Hamdy had passed his qualifying exams and begun a research program for his Ph.D. He conducted research for three years but, having lost his passion for engineering, he did not defend his dissertation, choosing to focus on working with languages instead. In 1988 he concluded an ABD in Civil Engineering from OSU, majoring in Geotechnical and Foundation Engineering with a minor in Hydraulics and Structures.

In 1989 Hamdy began teaching French at OSU and also radically changed the focus of his doctoral program, focusing now on humor in language teaching and cross-cultural communication. In 1991 however, Hamdy returned to Tunisia for a home-stay and wound up remaining there for three years. In 1992 he spent three months studying communication theory at Université Robert Schuman in Strasbourg, France. He then returned to Tunisia and began work as a part-time private business consultant and project manager in Tunis. He also worked for his brother’s company, Le Carrière du Sud.

In 1994 Hamdy married his wife, Laura Rice, a Professor of Comparative Literature at OSU. They had met in the 1980s while he was at OSU and were married in Tunisia while she was a visiting Fulbright professor in 1994. In 1995 the couple returned to Corvallis.

In 1989 Hamdy set up the Arabic Language Fund at OSU and, beginning in the late 1990s, he co-designed and secured funding for a program that helped to teach Tunisian colleagues about the use of computers. Hamdy and Rice also began designing a Tunisian Study Abroad program in 2000, and they became co-directors and co-founders of this program in 2004 when OSU sent its first cohort of students to Tunis. In 2002 OSU also began offering Arabic language courses, and Hamdy taught both Arabic and French at the university for more than fifteen years.