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Two years in Tunis: 2012 Laker grad Celeste Koppe is making her mark in the Middle East

Laker grad Celeste Koppe has spent the past two years living and working in Tunis, the capital city of Tunisia in northern Africa, as a coordinator at a library and cultural center sponsored by the U.S. Embassy. She has spent the majority of the past several years traveling and living internationally. She's home for a visit now before heading out to Budapest, Hungary to attend graduate school. Marie Johnson / Tribune1 / 5
Celeste Koppe works with Tunisian children at the American Corner-Tunis, an arm of the U.S. Embassy there. Submitted Photo 2 / 5
Koppe, center, with other guests at a traditional Tunisian wedding. Submitted Photo 3 / 5
Laker grad Celeste Koppe has spent the past two years living and working in Tunis, the capital city of Tunisia in northern Africa, as a coordinator at a library and cultural center sponsored by the U.S. Embassy there. She has spent the majority of the past several years traveling and living internationally. She's home for a visit now before heading out to Budapest, Hungary to attend graduate school. Marie Johnson / Tribune4 / 5
Koppe speaks to visitors during an open house at the American Corner-Tunis. Submitted Photo5 / 5

Perched on a puffy couch in the living room of her parent's home in Detroit Lakes on Wednesday, a summer scarf casually draped around her neck, Laker alum Celeste Koppe shared stories about what she's been up to since her 2012 graduation.

There was a lot to tell.

Since delivering the farewell address to her classmates at their commencement ceremony six years ago, Koppe has been out saying hello to the world, making her mark on it both literally and figuratively, as she's lived and worked internationally for much of the recent past.

As a college student and all-around student of life, she's traveled to several Middle Eastern and European nations. The now 24-year-old speaks multiple languages, including three different dialects of Arabic, some French, English and a little Hungarian. She's lived in Morocco, Jordan and, most recently, Tunisia.

She's studied many subjects in school, such as history, foreign languages and politics, and has worked for an arm of the U.S. Embassy. She's also co-founded an influential online magazine, and had a one-on-one meeting with the U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia.

The former Detroit Lakes High School cross country runner and honor roll student is briefly back in her hometown now to visit family before heading overseas again, this time to attend graduate school in Budapest, Hungary.

Koppe is a unique standout for her travels and interests — most 24-year-old Americans don't speak three different versions of Arabic, for example — but she says it actually all stems from her upbringing here.

"There's a serious sense of adventure here in Detroit Lakes, with the extreme temperatures, sports and a lot of people being into nature," she says. "In that sense, I don't think what I'm doing is very different. My outlet is just travel instead of things like snowmobiling or skiing."

Her time in Tunisia

For the past two years, Koppe worked as a coordinator at the American Corner-Tunis, a U.S. Embassy-sponsored independent library and cultural center in Tunisia's capital city of Tunis. She says she was there to observe the Tunisian culture as well as share things about American culture with the young locals who visited the center.

"People there had a lot of stereotypes about Americans, probably from Hollywood," she says. "So I helped break those things down and show the complexity of the country. There's a diversity in thought, lifestyle and culture, so I was getting at that."

Her manner and appearance would often surprise people in Tunis, she says — as would her ability to speak Arabic, especially local forms of the language, which no one ever expected of a young American. She broke stereotypes simply by not being one, and by letting people see that. The experience allowed her to "connect a normal person to a normal person, rather than a normal person to media, or to what government's telling them," she says.

She mainly focused on community-building in her work at the American Corner, as well as on increasing the local people's awareness of the resources available for students at the center. She hosted open houses, and promoted events and opportunities on social media. She helped kids get involved in volunteering, and taught English.

She also led a major project while at the American Corner, co-founding an online magazine that empowers young Tunisians to write and produce content of interest to other young Tunisians. The magazine, called CreativenessTN, offers a platform for youth to express themselves through articles, photographs and videos.

Koppe worked as the main editor at the magazine for well over a year, and also led related workshops on media literacy and journalism. She left the magazine "in good hands," she says, and CreativenessTN continues to be a growing, influential force in Tunisia. Its Facebook page reached 5,000 likes this past Tuesday.

Tunisia underwent a political revolution in 2011 and is currently in the midst of a rocky transition into democracy. In the process of rebuilding, Koppe says, some basic support systems were lost (such as garbage pickup service and the ability to obtain needed prescription meds), and the economy is in crisis. Things are chaotic and uncertain, but Koppe says that made her time there more interesting.

"It's an exciting time for Tunis," she says. The country is still sorting itself out, but she feels it's full of potential. She also loves the "energy and enthusiasm" of the people there, and their attitudes toward life: "They're very positive and don't sweat the small stuff. They're in the process of creating, and I like that."

Tunisia is a north African country with a population of about 11 million people. Tunis, its largest city, is home to more than 1 million. The country is known for its great beaches, good food, interesting architecture, ancient ruins and other attractions. In Tunis, especially, Koppe says, there's always some sort of cultural event or other entertainment going on.

"There was always so much to do, so many things to see, and so many people that I was meeting every day," she says. "Life was very stimulating. It was very exciting. It's very busy."

Islam is the official state religion in Tunisia, and Koppe got accustomed to hearing the call to prayer five times a day. She was also present for the holy month of Ramadan, and got to see and share in Eid al-Fitre, a festival held at the end of Ramadan.

Aside from the daily prayers and special holidays, Koppe says, religion does not have an overwhelming presence in Tunis, which is more liberal than other parts of the region. She applied the same policy to her behavior there as she does back home regarding religion, respecting all beliefs and generally keeping her own to herself.

She never had to cover her head in Tunisia, and never felt unsafe. She says she was free to live her life there as she chose.

"I was more comfortable there than in Jordan or Morocco," she says. "Women in Tunisia have much more freedom than in other parts of that area. There are barriers, but it's quite free, relatively."

Choosing the road less traveled

After high school, Koppe attended Carleton College, a small liberal arts school in Northfield, Minn., where she majored in history. Her eventual travels to the Middle East began with a single decision — to meet Carleton's foreign language requirement by taking Arabic.

"It seemed like the most foreign thing at the time, and I was really curious," Koppe explains.

She took two years of modern standard Arabic, during which time she not only learned the language, but also about Middle Eastern geography, history and society.

"There was a natural progression into other parts of the culture," she says. "I kept growing more curious about the places... So it was primarily the language that led me to this (life of travel)."

It's very common for junior year students at Carleton to study abroad, Koppe says, so after her sophomore year, she started traveling. She went to Morocco for about 3 months, and then Jordan for another 3 months.

In Morocco, she studied language and community service over a summer term, and also interned at a local organization that focused on women's issues. In Jordan, she spent a semester immersed in an Arabic language program with only a few other students.

"We were focused on one thing and one thing only," she says. "It was intense."

After returning to Carleton for about a year, she went back to Morocco to conduct a research project on the nation's fight for independence and the role of women during that time. She was supposed to study in Istanbul, Turkey, her senior year, but that opportunity was cancelled at the last minute after a series of car bombings raised safety concerns. She was disappointed, but staying in Minnesota meant she could graduate with her friends at Carleton.

After obtaining her bachelor's degree in 2016, Koppe started job hunting, hoping to find work in the Middle East so she could continue developing her language skills and learn more about the region. She applied to as many as 50 jobs, and was offered a tempting position with an organization in the Twin Cities, but ultimately opted for the coordinator role in Tunisia.

"I was always interested in languages and travel," she says.

With her Tunis days behind her, she's now looking forward to her time in Budapest, where she'll be majoring in political science at Central European University and is expected to obtain her master's degree within a year. She chose the school, she says, because it's well-established and she liked its values of good governance, democracy and open society.

"I really thought it was the best place to go and unpack what I experienced in Tunisia," she says.

After that, it's uncertain where she'll go next. Koppe doesn't envision herself coming back to live and work in the U.S. right away, but she's not ruling anything out, either. She says she's "very much interested in the region" of Tunisia, and her hope is to work with a nonprofit somewhere in the Middle East or Europe, in a role related to education or community development.

"I just think that there are so many places out there, and I'm not ready to come back and give that up yet," she says. "I encourage people to travel and to keep an open mind. Remember that people are people, no matter what they see on the news or hear, or the stereotypes... People are a lot more like us than they are different from us."

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 3-year-old son and baby daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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