Shelby Toler arrived at McDaniel College four years ago intending to major in biochemistry.
Realizing that biochemistry wasn't right for her after her freshman year, she considered sociology.
But, after her first Arabic class in her sophomore year, Toler decided to pursue a degree in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies, which she completed in May.
"I absolutely fell in love with learning the language," said Toler, who added that languages have always come easy to her.
That love of language has landed Toler the job of networking and event director for Bright Stars of Bethlehem, a nonprofit that provides funding and supports initiatives in Palestine.
"I'm extremely excited to get to go to Palestine and to work with the organization Bright Stars, where they're on the ground doing all of these projects, building schools and different health and wellness programs," she said. "They really are out there to make a difference and to better the lives of Palestinians."
Carol Zaru, an Arabic teacher at McDaniel, believes Toler will excel in her new role after having her in six classes at McDaniel.
"She has the drive. She has the passion. She has the discipline," Zaru said of her former pupil.
Toler credits Zaru, who was born in Jerusalem and previously lived in the city of Ramallah, Palestine, with driving her interest in the region.
"She's a heaven-sent to that school," Toler said. "She's by far the best professor I've ever had in my years there."
Toler added that Zaru's passion for teaching is evident from the time students step foot in her class, whether that is in the form of extended office hours or motivating her students.
"We all know we can go to her with any issue we may have, academic or not," she said.
With Bright Starts of Bethlehem, Toler will be the primary contact for donors, including individuals, congregations and organizations traveling to events across the country in coming months.
"A lot of my work will be establishing relationships and connections with people all over the United States who are interested in supporting Bright Stars," she said.
Over the next three months, Toler has trips planned to Washington, Chicago and Charlotte, among other cities, to meet donors and attend festivals representing the organization.
A Howard High School graduate, Toler still lives in Columbia.
While at McDaniel, she formed the school's dance team in her sophomore year, and also graduated with a minor in Spanish and forensic sciences.
During the summer after her junior year, Toler interned with the United Palestinian Appeal, a nonprofit organization founded in 1978 to assist Palestinians.
Toler credits this experience to introducing her to the connections that landed her the job with Bright Stars of Bethlehem.
Zaru first met Toler when she was a sociology major who took an Arabic class because it was interesting to her, not because she was trying to meet a course requirement.
Through that class Toler became more and more interested in the language and the culture.
"Obviously I could tell how passionate she was about the subject," Zaru said.
After taking her first Arabic class in the fall of her sophomore year, Toler switched her major in the spring to become an Arabic and Middle Eastern studies major.
The program is fairly new at McDaniel. The college offered its first Arabic class in 2005 and in 2012 established a major in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies.
Four students graduated with the degree in 2013 and in 2014, three students, including Toler, graduated from the program.
Zaru said she anticipates six students to graduate with a degree in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies next year.
Zaru described Toler as a "hard worker" and someone who tries not to miss any classes.
"She is a giving person, she wants to help," Zaru said.
She added that Toler took advantage of McDaniel's small campus, regularly visiting her office for assistance.
As Toler was leaving McDaniel, Zaru left her with the advice to "follow her passion."
"As long as she feels it is the right thing for her, she should be true to herself," Zaru said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun