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2018 EB Alumni Spotlight Award Recipient

Iliana Montauk '97

In honor of our 40th Anniversary, EB launched its first Alumni Spotlight Award, to recognize and honor successful alumni. Iliana Montauk, class of 1997, was chosen as the first recipient for her entrepreneurial spirit, her financial, social, and feminist impact in Gaza's tech sector, and her desire to be a positive force for change. Iliana demonstrates EB's values of global citizenship, multilingualism and the pursuit of excellence in everything she does. Iliana shares her own thoughts on EB and her current path.

1. How did attending EB influence your future choice of career path? What do you remember most?

EB grew my curiosity and confidence to explore many different interests. It also exposed me to Western Europe so much as a child that I ended up wanting to have more extreme adventures by the time I was in high school and college. As a result, when I recently was offered paid trips to speak at conferences in Barcelona and Pakistan, I declined the one in Barcelona but enthusiastically accepted the one in Pakistan (Peshawar, no less!) 

What I loved about EB was the intellectual rigor combined with variety. I remember so many things: playing sports, enjoying galettes des rois, passionate yet strict teachers, science with Michael Rossman (dissecting animals and blowing up their lungs with a straw, growing mushrooms, and so much more!), Marin Headlands and other outdoor experiences where night hikes and kissing banana slugs were an integral part, French and English math—no other school I knew exposed kids to two entirely different curricula, theater and music, book readings, and so much more. 

2. Do you feel that EB prepared you with a global outlook or mindset?

My favorite cultural exchange experience at EB was through a teacher who organized pen pals with a school in Normandy. I ended up corresponding with my pen pal, Magnolia Joalland, for decades and am now “friends” with her on Facebook. I visited her once for three days in 7th grade.

This long-distance pen pal relationship with a near-stranger left a strong impression on me because we were deeply committed to each other despite being so different. She lived in the countryside, visited her grandparents’ graves each Sunday, never traveled, and had a very simple life. For her, meeting an American was a big deal. I still have a bottle of perfume that Magnolia gave me in 7th grade. Looking at it always reminds me of the commitment we had to each other despite barely knowing each other and having very little in common. 

Since then, I’ve often connected to people who are vastly different from me, sought out our common humanity, and expanded my life experience by observing theirs. When I lived in Jordan for a year before moving to Gaza, my roommate was Syrian. His family showed up at our doorstep one day during the third year of the war and we have been close ever since. The equivalent of my pen pal relationship with Magnolia now is my weekly video chat with Rasha, a 25-year-old Syrian who is now a refugee in Germany.

In both cases, I took advantage of the connection to practice my language skills, too!

3. How has your study of languages, begun early at EB, been useful to you in your studies and work?

French has been useful for travel in parts of the world that used to be colonized by France, and for studying colonialism, which is fascinating and still much more relevant now than we often realize. I visited Morocco four times and wrote my thesis on colonial and post-colonial theater there. More recently, I’ve spent lots of time in Israel and Palestine, and have been struck by how many of the lessons on colonialism I learned in the French context apply there, too. 

Spanish has been useful for everyday life in California and meeting new people. It has also been useful for work in multiple contexts, including when I worked at EARN, a microfinance organization helping California low-wage workers save for the future. Many of our clients were Spanish and being able to speak to them in their native language was very useful.

Most important has been my confidence in learning languages. I started studying Arabic when I was in high school, taking classes at UC Berkeley, and now dabble in Hebrew as well.

4. What's your favorite memory of EB?

I have many, but always remember planting flowers in elementary school. We each received a flower of a specific type to plant; I think it was an annual tradition. Also, the DC trip in 8th grade. I loved my homestay family—I brought them a baby redwood tree from California.