New Middle Eastern studies minor will offer opportunities for students, the community

Marlena Chertock

MARCH 1, 2011

Brian Digre stands with Mohammad, his SUV driver, in the sand dunes of Qatar in 2008. Photo courtesy of Digre.

Sophomore Laura Tucker has lived in Saudi Arabia since her family moved there in 2002 for her father’s job at a petroleum company.  As an international studies major at Elon University, Tucker plans on pursuing her interest in the region of the Middle East. But Tucker and other students don’t yet have the option to minor in Middle Eastern Studies at Elon.

“Other than the main religion courses or broad global and history courses, there’s not many really focused and specific courses dedicated to Middle Eastern studies,” Tucker said.

The Middle Eastern studies minor has been in the works since 2007. The curriculum review board is in the process of evaluating the program, said professor Brian Digre, international studies program coordinator.

“I feel confident that both programs will be available in the fall,” Digre said.

Creating a minor

Graphics by Marlena Chertock.

There were several steps to get to this point. Digre traveled to Jordan, Israel and Egypt in the summer of 2008 on a six-week Fulbright-Hays seminar. The seminar allowed 10 U.S. professors to explore study abroad opportunities in the Middle East and enhance curriculum development at their universities, Digre said.

Digre also applied for a grant from the U.S. Department of Education Undergraduate International Studies and Foreign Language Program to help fund the establishment of the minor.

Elon provided matching funds for much of the grant, which allowed Elon to support faculty who wanted to develop new courses in the Middle East, to enhance library resources on the Middle East and study abroad programs and to hire a full-time Arabic professor.

For two years, the grant paid more than half of Arabic professor Shereen Elgamal’s salary. But now, Elon has made the position full-time and pays her salary, Digre said.

The department of foreign languages is exploring the introduction of elementary Hebrew courses for the minor.

Introductory modern standard Hebrew will be offered in the fall and introductory II in the spring, according to Scott Windham, department chair of Foreign Languges. The courses will be taught by a part-time professor.

“If enrollments are good, we will continue to offer more courses,” Windham said. “At some point, we might perceive a need for a permanent position in Hebrew, although that process could take many years.”

Students already showing interest

Many students in the international studies major havealreadyexpressedinterest in the region. Several students have asked for Digre’s approval of each course individually to count for the unofficial Middle Eastern concentration. Tucker has taken this route.

The Arabic Language Organization was created by students as a result of increasing interest in the language and region, according to Elgamal and many students have expressed interest in studying abroad in the region, Digre said.

There are several study abroad programs in place that will be related to the minor or concentration. There is a program at the American University of Cairo, Egypt, Council on International Education Exchange in Jordan and the University of Haifa, Israel that was just offered this year.

Broadening experiences and views

The classes will offer students opportunities to learn more about cultures and regions they are not familiar with and that are not well- known, Tucker said.

Arab culture and the Middle East have been stereotyped, intentionally or not, by people, governments and the media, Tucker said.

It will be beneficial for students to form their own opinions from truths rather than statements they hear, she said.

“You see students living in Israel, Jordan and Egypt for a semester and coming back,” Elgamal said. “These experiences are very important to campus. Instead of watching on television, they come back with experiences they encountered, actual people they interacted with. It’s a different outlook on things when you hear things from someone who was there.”

Tucker would agree. Living in Saudi Arabia helped shape her opinions and the way she views life and people, she said.

The minor will offer valuable career opportunities, according to Digre, as learning Arabic is important for careers today.

The outside community will also learn more about the region, Digre said.

The minor will bring in extracurricular activities, speakers and visiting professors, according to Elgamal. The awareness and knowledge would automatically spread, she said.

The minor is more important in light of the recent protests in several Arab countries,
according to Tucker. The prevalent and powerful stereotype of Islam and that every practicing Muslim is a terrorist needs to be combated, she said.

“Knowledge is power,” Tucker said. “And without it we’ll go on believing and continuing whatever we hear.”


Arabic professor Shereen Elgamal on importance of a Middle Eastern Studies minor


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About Marlena Chertock

Marlena Chertock's first collection of poetry, On that one-way trip to Mars, is available from Bottlecap Press. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Marketplace, and WTOP. Her poems and fiction has appeared in The Deaf Poets Society, Moonsick Magazine, and Paper Darts.

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