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Middle East Studies program offers a variety of options

Kevin van Bladel directs the Middle East Studies Program.
Kevin van Bladel, left, director of the Middle East Studies Program, introduces panelists at "Taking Stock of the Arab Uprisings," a lunchtime event hosted by the program. (Photo/Michelle Salzman)

The Middle East cuts a wide swath: It contains a number of countries, a multitude of languages, cultures and customs, and thousands of years of history.

Interests and conflicts resonate on a global scale, such as the unprecedented uprisings that recently swept the region. Not to mention it’s the birthplace of three of the world’s major religions – Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

Launched in fall 2011, the Middle East Studies program at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences offers students a chance to dig deeper into the area through a major or a minor.

“There’s hardly a single country in the region that hasn’t been in the headlines in the last year,” said program director Kevin van Bladel, associate professor of classics. “The program provides students an opportunity to explore the area in a critical way from a variety of perspectives.”

Students can choose from courses in American studies and ethnicity, anthropology, classics, economics, history, foreign languages, international relations, Judaic studies, linguistics, political science and religion. Eighteen faculty members from 12 departments teach within the program.

For freshman Caitlin Wilhelm, the wide range of offerings in a variety of disciplines was central to her decision to select Middle East studies as her major. She said she’s naturally drawn to the humanities and is especially interested in learning about history, culture and foreign languages. The program lets her combine all of her interests.

“I love the spectrum of classes,” said Wilhelm, who has a second major in linguistics. “They allow me to get a diverse background in the Middle East and gain a fuller understanding of the region.”

In high school and middle school, Wilhelm studied Arabic, German, Japanese, Spanish, French and Mandarin. In the Middle East program, she intends to add Hebrew and Persian to her repertoire while continuing to build her skills in Arabic at USC Dornsife.

Wilhelm also is taking a course offered through the department of history and American studies and ethnicity called “Arabs in America,” which looks at Arab immigration and acculturation in the United States. By combining her language experience with cultural studies, she’s gaining deeper insight in her scholarship, she said.

“Having a background in the language of a culture is so valuable for understanding more about the people and history of the culture you’re studying,” Wilhelm said.

For example, formal Arabic and colloquial Arabic are different from each other and understanding the language offers a window into the culture, said USC scholar Sarah Gualtieri, who teaches “Arabs in America.”

“There’s a difference between the formal, classical language of Arabic – what you’d read in a newspaper or hear if you turned on Al Jazeera. Then there’s the colloquial language – the language of everyday speech. And this can differ between Egyptians, Palestinians and Lebanese, for example,” said Gualtieri, associate professor of history and American studies and ethnicity.

“I’ve seen how Caitlin picks up on these nuances. Some of the films we watched in class are partly in Arabic and partly in English, and I could sense her being drawn into the films in a deeper way because of her study of Arabic,” Gualtieri said.

The program also hosts a number of events that take learning beyond the classroom.

“Taking Stock of the Arab Uprisings,” a recent lunchtime discussion,  assessed the revolutions that have taken place over the past year throughout the Arab world. Students and guests crowded into a classroom to hear professors from USC Dornsife and the USC Sol Price School of Policy parse through the significance and impact of the events unfolding against authoritarian regimes throughout the region.

Shams Hirji, an accounting major and classics minor, attended the talk to gain perspective on what he described as a “once-in-a-lifetime” revolt.

“It helps to hear what USC scholars have to say about what’s going on,” Hirji said. “It’s a great filter about a real-world event.”

Hirji’s participation meets a goal of the Middle East program.

“We want students to interact with professors,” van Bladel said. “At an event such as the discussion on the Arab uprisings, students can jump into a live conversation with experts on what’s happening right now in the Middle East.”

The program also hosts mixers to give students and faculty an opportunity to get to know one another and make academic connections. Sophomore Ramy Rashad said one such gathering, where he met professor Laurie Brand, was particularly fortuitous for him.

As a result of the meeting, the two developed an independent research project for Rashad, a neuroscience major with a minor in Middle East studies. Rashad will travel to Egypt this summer and study how the presidential election to replace former president Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years, unfolds in Cairo.

Rashad plans to meet with a former Egyptian ambassador to Iran and Afghanistan. He also intends to interview civilians about the occasion.

Brand, Robert Grandford Wright Professor and professor of international relations, is Rashad’s adviser on the project. Their collaboration has been extremely beneficial, Rashad said. “The professors themselves open so many doors for us students.”

Study abroad programs organized through the Office of Overseas Studies housed at USC Dornsife also are a good way for students to experience the Middle East, van Bladel said. Programs are available in Jerusalem, Israel, Cairo, Egypt and Jordan.

“We hope our students will take every opportunity they can to go experience the region firsthand,” van Bladel said. Students also can pursue research in the region through other avenues.

In addition, the Middle East program is a member of organizations, such as American Schools of Oriental Research and the Center for Arabic Study Abroad – partnerships that give students access to additional benefits and opportunities for scholarship.

Van Bladel encouraged students to give their input on ways for the program, which was developed in response to their requests for more courses on the Middle East, to grow.

“When students have interests and want to pursue a topic related to the Middle East not found in existing courses, they should contact us and let us know so we can find ways to facilitate their requests,” he said. “We aim to provide a space for everybody interested in the Middle East to come together and learn from one another.”

For Wilhelm, it’s a chance to explore her interests in a program that will help lead to a career.

“Studying languages, history and culture has given me so many options to consider when I choose what I would like to do with the rest of my life,” she said.

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