Harig’s history: what you don’t know about french teacher Madame Harig

French Teacher Nabila Harig was a champion of the Tunisian Tennis team in France before she came to the United States on an educational visa. Courtesy of Nabila Harig

French Teacher Nabila Harig was a champion of the Tunisian Tennis team in France before she came to the United States on an educational visa. Courtesy of Nabila Harig

French teacher Nabila Harig’s Tunisian background is hard to miss as a French student. She often incorporates details about her experience growing up in a francophone country into lesson plans and uses personal anecdotes to give students a perspective of the french-speaking world. What students don’t know is that Harig had a very long journey to becoming a French teacher. 

Born in Tunisia, Harig was a child during a time of immense change in her native country. Tunisia, after becoming independent, was starting to become more tolerant of all religions and give women more rights. These changes allowed Harig to attend a Catholic school as a child, something that wasn’t common in the predominantly Muslim country. 

“Those were the best years of my life because it was such a clean environment and there was an importance of education and values; we were a mixture of different people,” Harig said.

Harig’s stability at Catholic school was upturned, however, when changes in the political and social climate in Tunisia forced her to find a new school. 

“The government decided that we should not have any Catholic private schools in this country. It was a lot of stress for me because I wasn’t used to public schools and I never dealt with people other than those people in the private schools,” Harig said. 

Many students who were also displaced by the Catholic school closure decided to continue their education in boarding school in France. Harig’s family made the decision that she should follow the other students and begin attending boarding school. 

“In fourth grade, I moved with them. They moved their institution about two hours away from Paris,” Harig said. “It was seven beautiful years of my life— not because I moved away from my parents but because of the values [we had at school].” 

After boarding school, Harig’s father convinced her to come back to Tunisia for the time being and get her “Bac,” a degree that students can get at the end of high school. Earning a career or technical “Bac,” [the highest distinctions of the baccalaureate] can mean entrance into a prestigious college. After earning the “bac scientifique” with honors, she made the decision to come to America. 

“At first it was just a joke because usually, [in Tunisia] we don’t go to America. We go to France. I applied to an American University and then to another medical school in France. I spent six months waiting for the decision and I got accepted with a full scholarship to go to the States,” Harig said. “I started packing and, to be honest with you, I did not think I could do it.” 

Harig says she faced a lot of self-doubts and questioning from others in her community on her decision to travel to America for an educational scholarship. Tunisia was still rapidly changing at the time, and not everyone approved of women’s rights, expanded educational opportunities and generally being an independent democratic country. 

“[America is] far away from home. Language is the biggest barrier because English was a third or fourth language for me. My dad did not want me to go to the States since he just got me back from France,” Harig said. “The society was just starting to be emancipated so it was only 50-50 of the people who approved of whether a young girl could go to America by herself.”

Despite the uncertainty around this change, Harig traveled to America on an educational visa and attended the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, but when she learned that her Tunisian friend was attending Ohio State University, she decided to transfer. 

“I started teaching as a teacher’s assistant (TA) and I had a bit of room to drop my Tunisian scholarship and study whatever I wanted. I started studying economics and French,” Harig said. “It was like being on my own. The scholarship was not coming and being a TA paid for my tuition. I had to keep being a student because I came on a student visa; it was my only way of staying in the States.”

Harig continued her studies and was on track to achieve a Ph. D. at Virginia Tech. However, right when she was finishing her thesis, her topic about NATO became obsolete due to political developments and she had to start over again. Instead of spending years reworking her Ph. D., Harig decided to contact a friend of hers who worked at Washington University. 

“I came to St. Louis following my friend. That’s how I got a job at Kirkwood and met my husband and had a kid. I didn’t return to Tunisia for seven years. It was the hardest road to get my green card,” Harig said. “They told me you have to go home for at least two years and come back because they invested in your education and you had to go back and invest in your country. I was stuck.”

Harig returned to the United States after two years in Tunisia and eventually gained full citizenship and a green card. She settled down at Kirkwood High School, teaching French, and eventually moved to Parkway West. Harig is proud to be here to stay. 

“The road was very rocky to get here, but that’s the point,” Harig said. “I’m at a place where I chose to live. I feel like I achieved something and I feel like I climbed the mountain and now I’m at the top.”