WASHINGTON, PA (July 15, 2011)—In collaboration with the Pittsburgh Middle East Institute (PMEI), Washington & Jefferson College is hosting a month-long, innovative new Arabic cultural and language immersion program for a group of area college students intent on experiencing Middle Eastern language and culture.
Thirteen students from local colleges and universities, including W&J, Carnegie Mellon University, Duquesne University, and the University of Pittsburgh, are participating in the four week program, according to Georges Montillet, W&J adjunct professor and director of the program for PMEI. With a goal of rapidly accelerating Arabic instruction, the program requires participants to speak only Arabic while on campus. The group is focusing on the Egyptian dialect because it is more “universally” understood throughout the Arab world, according to Montillet.
“These students are highly motivated and they really want to learn the language,” Montillet said. “Most have a year or two of college Arabic, but this program is intense, from studying all morning to four hours of classroom instruction in the afternoon, then cultural activities in the evenings, such as young men and women from the local Arabic-speaking community joining us for dinner at a Middle Eastern restaurant.”
Other cultural activities include attending Jum‘a Prayer at a mosque, Middle Eastern dance and cooking classes.
The students are living on campus with native Arabic speakers of their own gender. In addition to studying and speaking only Arabic, students will hear from experts in global politics and have community outreach opportunities, including dialogues with Iraqi refugees living in Pittsburgh.
One participating student from Turkey, Kursat Osenc, is studying Arabic to deepen his understanding of the Qur’ān. Duquesne University student David Gerber hopes his improved Arabic language skills will give him wider access to resources for a Ph.D. in political science. Olivia Jones from the University of Tennessee sees Arabic as a crucial tool for her major in international studies.
Simin Curtis, PMEI president and founder, originally conceived of and found funding for this language and cultural immersion program in Egypt, where fifteen Pittsburgh students traveled last year. With the recent protests making travel difficult in that country, Anahita Firouz, a PMEI co-founder, proposed to simulate the life-changing immersion experience here in Pittsburgh. When Michael Shaughnessey, Ph.D., chair of foreign languages at W&J, heard of the opportunity, he took it directly to W&J President Tori Haring-Smith, Ph.D., who has made global education and campus diversity a top priority at W&J. Within a few weeks, the program went from concept to vibrant reality.
“We decided to define this W&J immersion program as a preparation for going overseas,” Montillet said. “It is all about personal connections, and if you do not know the language, personal connections within a country will be limited to its English-speaking representatives. If you get your basic language skills, you can experience the country in a whole new light.”
He said he hopes an international business preparation component could be added to PMEI programming in the future because so many companies in Pittsburgh have a Middle East presence. For now, it is intense language instruction at a traditional, liberal arts college.
“Our theme is building bridges through business, education, and culture,” Montillet said.