NAEd/Spencer Fellow Riggan Finds Two Lifelong Loves in Eritrea

By schwartzsa | June 5, 2012

Jennifer Riggan, Assistant Professor of International Studies in the Department of Historical and Political Studies, was awarded a Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship by the National Academy of Education in May, a prestigious honor that encourages outstanding researchers at the postdoctoral level to pursue critical education research projects. The fellowship will allow her to write a new book, The Teacher State: Militarization and the Reeducation of the Nation in Eritrea, an ethnographic study that explores Eritrean teachers’ strategies to negotiate militarization in a regime with which she and her Eritrean husband, Ermias Zemichael, are all too familiar.

“My study really looks at a specific time period—the period of time that my husband and I lived through—during which the government was militarizing the country,” explains Riggan. “The Eritrean state created a policy that required citizens to begin military training before they could graduate from high school. Not only was this done in order to develop their military and force youth into National Service, but it was used as an element of control, limiting the number of citizens who could go on to higher education and/or leave the country. What I am interested in is examining how educators coped with this change, forcing them into a contradictory position—both as employees of the state and advocates for their students.”

Riggan conducted fieldwork in Eritrea as part of her dissertation in the Education, Culture and Society program at the University of Pennsylvania; however, her experiences in Eritrea began much earlier. In 1995, she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Eritrea, just four years after the nation declared independence.

“It was a wonderful and exciting time to be in Eritrea,” she says. “There was an energetic spirit and a sense of stability as they began to build their nation; it was an optimistic place.” And it was during this hopeful time that Riggan met the man who would become her husband. Finishing up her tour in 1997, Riggan left Africa with the understanding that Zemichael would follow so that they could marry and begin a life together. Their plans were foiled when Ethiopia and Eritrea engaged in a border war in 1998.

“People couldn’t receive an exit visa allowing them to emigrate from Eritrea unless they had completed National Service, and my husband had not yet served,” explains Riggan. Initially, they’d hoped Zemichael could leave through Ethiopia, where his family still lived and where he had regularly returned to visit. But as international tensions heightened, Eritreans living in Ethiopia were deported to Eritrea. Not only was Zemichael’s route to migrate to the United States blocked, his family lost everything when they were deported. “We quickly realized he would be stuck,” she says.

In 2000, Riggan began her graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, admittedly because it would allow her four-month breaks to spend time with her fiancé. But along the way she discovered a love for academia. Although they married in Asmara, Eritrea, in 2000, it wasn’t until she finished her fieldwork in Eritrea in 2005 that Zemichael finally was able to get permission to travel to the United States. They now reside in Philadelphia with their two sons. Additionally, Zemichael earned a bachelor’s degree in Computing Technology from Arcadia University in May 2012.

Riggan brings her experiences in Eritrea to many of the courses she teaches at Arcadia, including the International Studies course Social Life of War, which explores the ways in which war and violent conflict reshape social structures, create new cultural processes in reaction to altered reality, and reconstitute identities. She has elected to spread out her National Academy of Education/Spencer award over the course of two years so that she may continue to teach part-time at Arcadia.

“The University is quite excited to have its first Spencer Foundation fellow,” says Dr. Steve O. Michael, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. “Dr. Riggan is certainly a deserving scholar, and the fellowship is a national recognition of her work and of her as a rising star. I have no doubt that Dr. Riggan’s work will enhance her pedagogy.”