In Memoriam: Lisa Adeli

Jan. 25, 2021
Lisa Adeli at the CMES Photo Exhibit in spring 2016.

Lisa Adeli at the CMES Photo Exhibit in spring 2016.

Lisa Adeli, director of educational outreach for the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, or CMES, at the University of Arizona, passed away on Dec. 22, 2020, after a year-long battle with breast cancer. She was 62.

With a passion for education, Adeli was a high school and college teacher before joining CMES – which is a Title VI National Resource Center – in 2007. Over the past 13 years, she expanded the community’s understanding of the Middle East and provided K-12 and community college educators with instructional materials and opportunities.

“I was saddened to learn about Lisa Adeli’s passing,” said John Paul Jones III, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “I am grateful for the many years she was a part of our SBS family, sharing her talents and passion to expand understanding of the Middle East and support educators. I extend my condolences to her family, friends, and colleagues.”

Lisa Adeli when she started her first chemotherapy treatment.

Lisa Adeli when she started her first chemotherapy treatment.

During Adeli’s battle with cancer, she continued to direct outreach for CMES, saying that the work kept her sane. She developed online activities to provide schools and the community the opportunity to learn about the Middle East during the pandemic.

“At CMES we will miss Lisa’s bright presence, enthusiasm, seemingly boundless energy, and her deep kindness more than we can express,” said Anne Betteridge, director of CMES. “We work closely as a group, helping one another to develop and implement project ideas, and feel keenly the absence of our dear colleague. At CMES, we’ll do our best to carry on Lisa Adeli’s exceptional work with her generosity of spirit.”

A Legacy of Accomplishment

Lisa Adeli was hired as CMES’ first full-time outreach coordinator and then director, helping build an outreach program that addresses the needs of multiple communities of educators and learners. 

“When Lisa Adeli became CMES’ new outreach coordinator in July 2007, she told us it was her dream job,” Betteridge recalled. “We soon learned that she was our dream outreach coordinator. CMES' outreach has become a national model of how to conduct outreach well, creatively, and with respect.”


Much of Adeli’s job at CMES involved developing programs and curricular materials for K-12 teachers/community college educators. She created and shared professional development opportunities, including workshops, conferences, summer institutes, lesson plan awards, and programs for teachers in rural areas.

Most recently, she and Emma Harver, her counterpart at the University of North Carolina’s Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies, created the Teachers Collaborating Across Borders virtual exchange program, in which 15 teachers in the U.S. and 15 in the Middle East discuss teaching issues and collaborate to involve their students in classroom projects.   

“I am humbled by the opportunity to continue this program as part of Lisa’s legacy,” Harver wrote. “Lisa changed the lives of souls of all ages with her generous spirit – teaching others about the world, expanding perspectives, and making connections.”

Adeli shared extensive lists of international studies opportunities and resources through weekly bulletins to her listservs, developed over her years at CMES.  In late 2020, those listservs included 1,629 Arizona teachers, 2,632 teachers from other states, and another 465 community college and undergraduate university-level instructors.

She was generous in sharing her knowledge through presentations to local, regional, and national groups of educators and members of the public, and managed CMES Speakers Bureau and Outreach Scholars programs, which provide speakers knowledgeable about the Middle East to schools and community groups upon request. 


Adeli encouraged the understanding and inspiration that can come from international travel by leading teachers on educational trips to various countries, including Turkey and the Balkans; Oman and Zanzibar; Bosnia and Albania; Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan; and Morocco. She received eight Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad curriculum development grants and one National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute grant, titled “Middle Eastern Millennials through Literature, Culture, and Media.”

“Lisa won the Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad many years in a row for the amazing international educational programs she’d design for K-12 educators to enhance their curriculum in modern languages and area studies,” said Emily Kotay, associate, international research development, with Research, Innovation & Impact at the University of Arizona. “Lisa’s ingenuity and passion for K-12 education will be greatly missed.”

A Passion for Education, History, and the Middle East

Adeli received her B.S. in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics (Teaching English as a Second Language) and an M.A. in History, both from Indiana University.

After teaching at UA South and at Cochise College, Adeli earned a secondary teaching certification and taught World History and English full time at Buena High School in Sierra Vista for 12 years.

Adeli also worked on her Ph.D. in History at the University of Arizona over many years, progressing steadily while working full time and raising three sons.

“Lisa loved to multi-task more than any other person I have ever met and she was good at it,” said Julie Ellison-Speight, associate director of CMES. “Lisa often talked about her experience giving birth with her second son and making sure she was signed up for classes and insurance, when you still had to go to Bear Down Gym.”

Adeli received a Ph.D. in 2004 with a specialty in Modern Balkan history. She wrote her doctoral dissertation (briefly published as a book) on the reaction against genocide in Bosnia and Croatia during World War II. 

After Adeli began working at CMES in 2007, she missed teaching.  She volunteered and then created and taught a Middle East studies class at Cholla High School in Tucson for five years, sometimes also teaching ESL. 

“Lisa worked hard to assure that her most capable students could receive dual credit from CHS and the UA for her Middle East studies class,” Betteridge said.  “She regaled us with tales of how excited and proud her CHS students were to see their names on a UA class roster.”

Lisa Adeli receives award from Rick Steves.

An avid traveler, Lisa Adeli (center) was thrilled to receive the National Council for the Social Studies’ Award for Global Understanding from Rick Steves in 2012.

Adeli sought out professional development opportunities to expand her expertise. She was a Teacher Fellow with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National World War I Museum; a board member of  the Arizona Council for History Education; and an active participant in National History Day in Arizona, the National Council for the Social Studies, and the Middle East Outreach Council. She also volunteered with the nonprofit Educators’ Institute for Human Rights, developing teachers’ programs in Bosnia-Herzegovina.  

Adeli received many awards recognizing her service, including the National History Day Arizona Educator of the Year in 2003, the History Channel’s History Service Award in 2009, and the National Council for the Social Studies’ (NCSS) Award for Global Understanding in 2012.  

Honoring Lisa Adeli’s Impact 

Testimonials about Adeli’s impact flowed into the CMES office as news traveled about her death.

“The outpouring of support we at the Center have received from so many people heretofore unknown to me is unbelievable,” said Ellison-Speight.

CMES will establish an outreach activities fund in Adeli’s name so that the Center can continue exceptional outreach work and honor her memory.

“I remain in awe of how Lisa lived her life. She really was an inspiration to her community in how she devoted her career to dispelling stereotypes about the Middle East and internationalizing curriculum at all levels,” said Ellison-Speight. “Also, the way Lisa faced cancer with her chin up was amazing. Lisa really appreciated all she had, including her family, friends, and career. We at the Center, on both professional and personal levels, appreciate the legacy she left behind, and our goal is to continue as many of her wonderful outreach projects as we can at the high level she did.”

The Middle East Outreach Council will also award Adeli its Lifetime Achievement Award, which will be presented to her family.

“Outlining Lisa's accomplishments and efforts is nearly impossible, as there are simply too many to recount,” wrote the Middle East Outreach Council on its Facebook page. “Lisa has been one of our most stalwart supporters and champions for two decades, serving on the MEOC National Board of Directors, chairing the Middle East Book Awards, and chairing the Youth Non-Fiction review panel – even this past year, as she read and reviewed books while undergoing chemotherapy….Her loss will be deeply felt.”


Many testimonial were also placed on Adeli’s obituary page at Dignity Memorial, acknowledging her impact on their lives and in the field, as well as her deep love for her husband and sons. Here’s a sample:

“Our time together in Palestine remains a highlight of my career,” said Lanisa Kitchiner, who was recently appointed the chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division for the Library of Congress. “I enjoyed sending staff from the Smithsonian to study under your tutelage and Iooked forward to working together with you again in my new post at the Library of Congress. I had no idea that our conversation a few short weeks ago would be our last.”

Therese Tendrick wrote, “There are some people you meet in your life who really have a positive impact. Lisa was one of those. She smiled. She reached out to help. She was a plethora of knowledge and passion. I worked with several projects with Lisa as she reached out to those of us in international education at the Maricopa Community Colleges, and I can attest to her passion, hard work, and genuinely positive nature.”

Susan Douglass wrote, “Lisa Adeli was a force of nature as an educator. She cared for her students, for the teachers she served, and for the people and places in the world whose lives and stories she worked to share with educators in a full and enlightening manner. We educators and outreach professionals owe Lisa an enduring debt of gratitude for her leadership among us, for her intellectual work in writing and disseminating sound curriculum, and for her mentorship and shining example as a teacher.”

“Because of her love for the world and teachers, I was able to have the experience of a lifetime in Morocco as a Fulbright Scholar,” Teresa Seabolt wrote. “She worked hard to create experiences for teachers to be better human beings by opening up hearts and minds to different cultures. Thank you for my first camel ride and sunrise in the Sahara Desert.”

Read the Center for Middle Eastern Studies letter about Lisa Adeli to learn more about her amazing accomplishments.