Aug. 15, 2002
Vol. 21 No. 19

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    Language grants can lead students to Cambridge, Yemen . . .

    By Carrie Golus
    News Office

    Erin Thomas, a 2002 graduate and winner of the Gaylord Donnelly University of Chicago/Cambridge University Exchange Scholarship, took a circuitous route from Chicago to Cambridge––via Sanaa, Yemen.

    During the summer of 2001, Thomas used one of the College’s Foreign Language Acquisition Grants (commonly known as FLAG grants) to study for 10 weeks in Yemen––a brave decision, especially since she had only one year of experience with Arabic.

    “I realized that if I ever wanted to do anything besides read the language and translate, I needed to live in an Arabic-speaking country,” said Thomas, a double concentrator in History and Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations. While she considered Arabic programs in Egypt, “I wanted to study in a country where I would be forced to speak Arabic in my everyday life. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.”

    The day Thomas arrived in Yemen, the American embassy closed because of terrorist threats and remained closed all summer. Nonetheless, she found the Yemeni people very hospitable to Western tourists, and as long as she was willing to ignore “stares and occasional shouts from men,” she could walk around the city freely on her own. “There really wasn’t much ‘to do’ in Yemen, so things like going out for food became the real highlight of one’s day,” she said.

    After returning to Chicago, Thomas wrote her senior thesis on the Yemeni civil war. She also applied for and won the Donnelley scholarship, which will enable her to earn a master’s degree in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Cambridge. “The FLAG grant was instrumental in my choice to pursue Middle Eastern studies at the graduate level,” she said. “The more I learned about the region, the more I wanted to keep studying.”

    While Arabic may have been an unusual choice for language study a few years ago, after the events of Tuesday, Sept. 11, demand has increased dramatically. At the beginning of fall quarter 2001, just 17 Chicago undergraduates had pre-registered for Arabic––but more than three times that many showed up for class two weeks after those events.

    An interest in Arabic continues. Of the 53 students who enrolled in Arabic last fall, 43 stayed until the end of the year, said Stephanie Latkovski, Associate Dean for International and Second Language Education.

    In the wake of the terrorist attacks last September, several higher-education groups have highlighted Americans’ lack of knowledge of foreign languages, policy and culture. In May 2002, for example, the American Council on Education and 33 other higher-education groups released a 28-page plan calling for more federal funding to foster international education. “There’s an interesting parallel with Sputnik in 1957, which led to an influx of money for foreign language teaching in the 1960s,” said Latkovski.

    While Chicago has a proud tradition of language and civilization studies, until recently, “there weren’t positive incentives to encourage undergraduates to go further in a language,” said John Boyer, Dean of the College, who launched the FLAG grant program five years ago. For many students, the grants make studying abroad affordable––and while studying in another country, students might just fall in love with the language and the culture, he said: “FLAG grants motivate students in a way that language requirements cannot.”

    This year, 77 FLAG grant recipients traveled all over the world. Eventually, Boyer would like to see this number climb into the hundreds. “Learning a foreign language is like going back to kindergarten––little kids know more than you,” said Boyer. “But once students have studied abroad, they come back feeling self-confident.”

    Latkovski added, “Once students gain the ability to speak a language, they really begin to understand this ‘other.’ It’s a cliché to say studying abroad changed one’s life, but for many students, it’s absolutely true.”