Knowledge begins at home.
Written by Ervin Dyer
On a spring morning, a purposeful young woman walks briskly along a tree-lined pathway on her way to the Cathedral of Learning. In the early sunlight, the leaves blush like emeralds, turning her thoughts to her native Kuwait, with its palm trees full of dates and its gulf waters sparkling in the sun. Home. That’s what floats into Laila Marouf’s mind as she strolls across the Oakland campus.
Inspired to teach and make a difference in her community, Marouf took steps to come to Pitt nearly a decade ago. Already well educated in her native land, she knew from experience that higher education offered a door to opportunities. She was ready to open the next door. In 2002, she traveled to the United States in search of a graduate school where she could pursue a PhD degree. The University of Pittsburgh was the first stop on her tour roster—and the last. She loved what she experienced on campus that day, and she canceled her plans to visit other universities. Pittsburgh felt like home. It glistened with promise. Before long, she was attending the University, far removed from the life in Kuwait that she had built with her husband and two children.
Marouf grew up in Ahmadi, a modern city in the country’s southeastern region. She was an inquisitive youngster and a good student during a time of expanding opportunity for Kuwaiti women. At age 18, she enrolled at Kuwait University, initially earning degrees in computer science and statistics. Eventually, after getting married and beginning a family, she returned to earn a master’s degree in library and information science, finishing at the top of her class.
When Marouf began doctoral studies at Pitt’s School of Information Sciences, she was particularly intrigued by the trendsetting discipline of knowledge management. It involved people-driven research, investigating how knowledge is formally and informally passed through society. During her master’s studies in Kuwait, Marouf had spent a lot of time researching corporate culture and human-resources development. Her doctoral research pushed beyond that, focusing on the significance of knowledge passed through social ties and family networks, which could be especially influential in the Middle East, where culture and family play pervasive roles. She enjoyed exploring the cultural and gender differences in how knowledge is shared. She knew such insights could lead to new ways to connect people, all people.
An award-winning scholar, Marouf earned her Pitt PhD degree in 2005, and today she teaches knowledge management and computer and information skills as a professor at Kuwait University. She uses classroom presentations and online discussions to help students reach beyond cultural and gender stereotypes. Through the lens of her profession, she sees progress, particularly in the Middle East. Women, she says, are more visible in government and day-to-day decision-making, but male-centered customs are changing, too. In Kuwait, for instance, the traditional Diwaniyah—an informal gathering of friends and families—is being transformed. In the past, men assembled on wooden benches in the cool of the evening. They played card games and chatted about life and politics. Women gathered separately from the men for tea and conversation. Now, the Diwaniyah is becoming more inclusive; the gatherings occur for networking and friendship across genders and cultures, especially among younger participants. Information and knowledge are being shared broadly, across former boundaries.
Every summer, Marouf (SIS ’05G) discusses these information-driven social changes when she meets with friends and colleagues back at Pitt, walks among the emerald trees, and recalls her initial decision to study here—a place that still feels a lot like home.
Photograph by Tom Altany