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Grad students awarded Critical Language Scholarships to study in Middle East

April 25, 2013

Nick Persons

Jackson School graduate students Nick Persons, Ruben Valencia, and Rachel Cook were awarded the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarships (CLS) for intensive language study abroad this summer.

The CLS Program is part of the U.S. government’s efforts to expand the number of American students studying critical foreign languages. “Critical” foreign languages include languages spoken primarily in the Middle East, East Asia and Eastern Europe.

The students will spend about two months staying with host families or other foreign students, taking intensive language classes and practicing speaking with a native speaker outside of classes.

Seasoned traveler Nick Persons has already had to adjust his travel plans: the second-year graduate student planned to study advanced Arabic in Cairo, Egypt, for the summer. However, he received notice in April notifying him that CLS would be closing their institutes due to security considerations in Egypt. Persons will instead be sent to Jordan for the summer.

Despite this curveball, Persons is excited about going to Jordan. He has studied abroad in both Egypt and Jordan, and although he spent more time in Egypt and is most familiar with the Egyptian dialect of Arabic, he considers transferring to Jordan a pleasant surprise.

“There are definitely some benefits about going to Jordan,” he explained. “Linguistically, I think my ability in the Jordanian dialect is weaker than my Egyptian dialect, so it’ll give me an opportunity to bolster a weakness of mine. … Probably the biggest positive about Jordan in comparison with Egypt is they house students with home stays rather than with other foreign students. And for me, that’s a really big deal. I think that…as a study abroad student, that’s where you make linguistic progress: living with host families [and] interacting with other students.”

Persons has been studying Arabic and the Middle East since early 2010. His interest in Arabic and the Middle Eastern culture stemmed from a world religions class he took during his undergraduate years. His curiosity was piqued as to how Islam was so entangled in foreign affairs.

To go any further with that interest, he realized he needed to learn the language. “You need language to understand the region,” he explained.

With his understanding of both the language and the region, Persons hopes to get a job with the federal government, an NGO, or a Think Tank. He credits the Jackson School with instilling a broad foundation in contemporary Middle East affairs through historical, anthropological, and political classes, and will apply that foundation when he goes abroad to Jordan.

Second-year graduate student Ruben Valencia will be taking a different path than Persons, traveling to Tajikistan to study Persian. Valencia, a New York native, first became interested in the Middle East because of 9/11. He saw what was on the news and media and “[I] knew it was more complex than that, so I wanted to get a more in-depth understanding [of the culture],” he explained.

Valencia studied Persian for more than a year, attending an immersion program at the University of Wisconsin. Valencia described the program as a good learning experience, but difficult to abide by. At the program, students could only speak in English a couple days a week; otherwise, they needed to speak in Persian. “It was hard,” said Valencia, “like when it’s 8 in the morning… your brain doesn’t work like that!”

That interest in the Middle East lead him from the East Coast to the Jackson School, which he picked because he enjoyed its flexible curriculum and he was able to focus on his specific interest of borders in the Middle East, primarily between Afghanistan and central Asia.

At the Jackson School, Valencia credits professors Scott Radnitz and Joel Walker for pushing him in his classes and assignments to be more specific, provide more details and be more analytical. “They forced me to be very specific, critical, and analytical in my studies,” Valencia explained. “They wanted me to develop my own assessment.”

He hopes to use his combined knowledge from the Jackson School and his trip to Tajikistan to work as a language analyst for the department of Defense, or utilizing his language skills in other agencies.

ConcurrRachel Cookent Jackson School and Law School graduate student Rachel Cook is also traveling to Tajikistan to study Persian, something that several years ago she would not have imagined.

“Before I came to law school, I worked in D.C. as a paralegal,” Cook said. “When I moved to D.C. my goal was to study Spanish because that seemed really practical, to gain language skills.”

However, something else happened instead. She moved into a house, where she met and befriended an Iranian roommate. Soon, Persians made up her main group of friends in D.C.

“I became really interested in the language and the culture and thought it was very important to connect to this group of people, who caused a 180 in my understanding of the region,” Cook explained. “I moved to D.C. in 2007, when there was an increasing amount of negative press and political tension. All of those factors really impacted me… The Persian thing was a complete surprise; one of those life experiences that you can’t plan for and ends up having a huge impact.”

Since then, Cook has worked tirelessly in her pursuit to learn more about the Persian culture through her studies. Cook plans on finishing law school this spring and will then begin the M.A. program at the Jackson School.

In law school, Cook focused on national and environmental resources, focusing in particular on resources in Afghanistan. Cook is also interested in looking at how Islamic law and how it can be used as tools for environmental projects.

In addition to completing her law degree, Cook has taken language classes to further her linguistic progress. She has had help in that area, however: This is Cook’s second year as a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) scholar.

Cook was drawn to the Jackson School as a complement to her law degree. “I wanted a broader understanding of the [Middle East] region and to take advantage of the resources of the Jackson School,” said Cook, who will start classes in the fall, after her return from Tajikistan.

It will be Cook’s first trip to the Middle East. “I’m excited about staying with host families…[and] about the possibility to just focus on language and not balance language study and law school,” said Cook. “I think it’s a great capstone to the two years I’ve done here with an application of the language.”

In the future she hopes to get her master’s degree, take the bar exam, and get a job, either in the U.S. or Afghanistan, to help with development or security issues.

“My goal is to get good legal experience and exposure to how environmental laws are dealt with here domestically and apply that to the Middle East,” said Cook.
By Melissa Croce