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ALL Launches New Arabic Studies Major

June 22, 2017

The Department of Asian Languages and Literatures is home to a new major subplan in Arabic studies.

Although the language has been taught in the department for several years, until recently, students were only able to minor in Arabic studies. That changed in fall 2016, when the major was introduced. Now, just a semester later, the program already boasts eleven majors.

Students take courses on language, literature, and culture, including on topics such as pre-Islamic poetry and gender in the Arab world.

Dr. Katrien Vanpee teaches both the language and courses in literature and culture, and also serves as Director of Arabic Language Instruction. She will soon offer a new course on Readings in Arabic Literature and another new course on Culture and Society of the Arabian Peninsula aimed at all undergraduates—including those who do not speak or read Arabic—and graduate students.

Professor Joseph Farag teaches courses on Arab American Experiences, Palestinian Literature and Film, and Gender and Sexuality in Modern Arabic Literature. Together, he and Vanpee have developed a program that takes a holistic approach to teaching about the Arab world.

Language-learning is a key aspect of the program. In her role as director, Vanpee wants to dispel the notion that learning Arabic is intimidating and too difficult. “Even if you start Arabic in college with zero background, it is perfectly learnable,” she explains. “If you put in the time and immerse yourself in the language, it’s very doable to reach a solid proficiency level that allows you to function with native speakers.”

Vanpee also wants people to understand the diverse array of students studying the language. The stereotype says that people studying Arabic want to work for the government, and although there are a few who fall into that category, there are many students with different interests who enrolled in the Arabic program to enhance their learning in their own fields of study. Students aspire to use their Arabic in medicine, academics, law, non-profits, business, and more. The program also attracts graduate students from various disciplines, like Veronica Menaldi, a PhD candidate in Spanish and Portuguese studies, who uses Arabic in her research.

Alex Werndli is an Arabic major who started learning the language simply because the first friend he made in college was from Syria. “I wanted to try learning a new language. We figured that if I learned Arabic, we could say things to each other without other people catching on,” he laughed. He spent spring 2017 studying in Morocco to further immerse himself in the language and culture. “My favorite thing about studying abroad is the people; interacting with people in ways that I had never expected and witnessing a lot of kindness is very memorable,” he says.

Natalie and Nicole Robinson are also majoring in Arabic… and they’re identical twins. Their interest in Arabic was sparked by a high school world history class in which they studied Middle-Eastern history. This spring, they completed their sixth semester of language study, and they have already taken most of the literature and culture courses available to them. They have each landed scholarships, and they are preparing to study abroad in Jordan. “Being in culture and language classes for two years has been great,” Nicole said. “However, it is not the same as living, studying, and working in the Middle East.”

“The program is very comprehensive, and I have enjoyed how it has developed under Dr. Vanpee in my six semesters of Arabic,” Natalie explained. “The connections I have made and the help and support that I have received have allowed me to broaden my options for my future career.”

The Arabic major may be brand new, but it flourishes thanks to the leadership of the instructors and the motivation of the students.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.