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Reference in the Desert:
Joan Petit, Reference Librarian Overseas

By Rachel Waterhouse

Finding adventure in her career

What can you do with an English degree? Of course, there are the glamorous job descriptions that every English major dreams of, such as editor in chief, journalist, novelist, or essayist. Being a librarian doesn’t seem nearly as exciting as penning philosophical ramblings on the brutality of corporate America, but who’s to say you can’t get your kicks referencing encyclopedias? Joan Petit, a WCU English graduate and passionate librarian, has managed to find a bit of adventure in her career.

Petit did not begin her career in a library. After graduating WCU in 2002 with a Master of Arts in English, she remained in her marketing position at the Nantahala Outdoor Center where she had worked since before her studies at WCU. Two years on this track convinced her to make a switch. In 2004, Petit returned to her alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and entered the School of Information and Library Science. After graduation, she worked at Duke University as their Instruction and Outreach librarian. One year later, she was offered the adventure of a lifetime.

In 2007, Petit accepted a position in Cairo, Egypt at an American University. Her husband and their two sons (adopted from Ethiopia) moved there primarily for the adventure,and that it has been. Although her job in Egypt is similar to her job at Duke (mostly library instruction and answering questions at the reference desk), her life is quite different from what it used to be.

Making cultural adjustments

Indeed, she has made some difficult adjustments. First, Petit and her family had to re-invent their eating habits, substituting fresh produce and local brands for convenient American dishes and brand names — but not because American food is unavailable; rather, “it’s often expensive—for example, Cheerios® cost over $7 a box!” The family also had to adjust to apartment living. Although Petit and her family live in a suburb of Cairo, it is still very crowded, with no public parks or big backyards for two growing boys of four and six years to romp around. Eventually, the Petits broke down and joined an American sports club.

No shifts were as trying as the “shift in cultural norms.” According to Petit, “Egyptians are very friendly and warm, but much more conservative socially. Most are Muslim and about 10 percent are Coptic Christian.” Women generally cover roughly 95 percent of their skin (meaning all skin besides hands neck and face), and most don a headscarf, or hijab, in addition to that. Joan is expected to dress conservatively (she misses her knee-length skirts sorely), but as a non-Muslim expat, no one expects her to go all out. “It would, in fact, seem quite strange.”

Despite the difficulties in acclimating to a vastly different culture, Petit decrees that her family is “spoiled here.” They acquire, as a standard expat compensation package, free tuition at a private American school for both the children, paid airfare for their family unit to go to America each summer during “home leave,” and vacation time for all combined holidays (American holidays, Muslim holidays, and Egyptian national holidays). “That's a lot of vacation time,” says Petit. “

Our favorite destination is a town called Dahab on the Sinai Peninsula, across from Saudi Arabia. It’s a very laid-back coastal town with incredible snorkeling and diving right off the beach.” The Petit family is even able to pay a full-time nanny/housekeeper. But apart from all the benefits of her international lifestyle, Joan insists, “My life is a pretty normal mom-with-kids life.”

Reflecting back on past experiences

Petit looks back on her experience at WCU with great appreciation, considering her unique career now. “My master's degree has opened many doors for me professionally that wouldn’t have been open otherwise…I also find I can relate to the graduate students and faculty I help because of my experience researching and writing a master’s thesis.” Petit benefited from the small class sizes and attentive faculty at WCU. In fact, a WCU faculty member, Dr. Hal Farwell, first suggested Petit would enjoy being a librarian, triggering the course of her international career.

So who says you need an illustrious title to fill your life with excitement? Opportunies for thrilling journeys hide in every career path, no matter if you become a teacher, an editor, or even a librarian. Follow the example of Joan Petit: chase your passion and go where adventure calls.

These profiles were created by the Karen Greenstone's English 303 class (spring 2009)
and edited for the web by Mary Adams's English 303 class (summer 2009).

Students in Mary Adams's English 303 class (fall 2009) wrote additional profiles.