New Sophomore College program provides Arabic immersion

March 10, 2015, 11:42 p.m.

This September, before the school year begins, 12 to 15 rising sophomores will have the opportunity to participate in the first Arabic language Sophomore College (SoCo) program. Called “Arabic in America,” the course aims to provide students with as much immersion as possible here at Stanford, since there is no official Stanford study abroad program in the Arabic-speaking world.


The importance of learning Arabic abroad

The closest BOSP program to the Arabic-speaking world is the new Istanbul program, which launched this winter and is the first quarter-long program that Bing Overseas Studies has opened in the Middle East. However, students who wish to go abroad specifically to learn Arabic must find non-Stanford alternatives.

Amanda Quay ’16 started Arabic in high school and has spent time in Morocco, Jordan and Oman through non-Stanford programs. Quay participated in the U.S. State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship Program. Although she enjoyed the two summer programs she completed abroad, she thinks it would be beneficial to have a Stanford program.

“We’re missing out,” Quay said.

“I was with students from all around the country which in some ways was cool but in some ways was really disappointing,” Quay said. Because many of the students she met live far away, she has fewer people with whom she can speak Arabic on a regular basis.

“That’s a huge disadvantage,” Quay said.

According to Quay, for students learning Arabic, studying abroad is especially important because each country has its own dialect.

“Learning the dialect while I was there…was immensely more useful [than learning Modern Standard Arabic],” Quay said. “It’s how you talk to people in the street when you’re trying to get a taxi.”

Stanford’s Arabic Language Program does offer rotating courses in different dialects, according to assistant professor of Arabic and comparative literature Alexander Key. This year, they are offering Palestinian and Lebanese dialects, he said.

Nevertheless,  Quay said that the dialect aspect is not as emphasized as some people would like.

“They’re trying to cover their bases,” said Quay. “But if it doesn’t fit in your schedule, then it’s tough luck.”

Students in the SoCo program will focus on both Modern Standard Arabic and different dialects.


Barriers to studying in the Middle East

Khalid Obeid, coordinator of the Arabic Language Program, explained that a very limited number of students currently go abroad to Arabic-speaking countries.

“The cost is very expensive, and if students do not have scholarships or support or sponsorships they find it very difficult,” Obeid said.

The second factor Obeid mentioned was a lack of stable travel destinations as a result of the region’s political turmoil.

“When we talk about safety in the Middle East, it’s something unique,” Obeid said. “You cannot predict it, and that’s the problem.”

Security concerns have consistently been a major roadblock to creating a program in the Arabic-speaking world. According to professor of English and comparative literature and director of the BOSP program Ramon Saldívar, the BOSP gets its security information primarily from the State Department, which issues different levels of warnings.

“We will not send any students where there is a State Department warning,” Saldívar said.

A handful of exceptions have been made to this rule in recent years after faculty petitioned Provost John Etchemendy. This was the case with an Overseas Seminar that went to Israel in summer 2013. The seminar was led by former Stanford professor of Jewish studies Steve Weitzman, who is now at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Sometimes those warnings are not about the entire country but about specific regions,” Weitzman said of the State Department warnings. “I would encourage people to read those warnings in a very nuanced way.”

Although many other universities, including Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, send students to study in the Middle East, Stanford has acted more cautiously, Weitzman said.

“[Peer institutions] have been more willing to make their own judgment calls,” Weitzman said.

However, Weitzman believes that the University should try to send students to the Middle East whenever it’s reasonable.

“I think that Stanford prides itself on producing students who are going to be global leaders,” he said. “And it’s easier to educate students to be global leaders if they can see the globe.”


Faculty and University involvement

According to Saldívar, the lack of faculty willing to take the initiative in creating a program has also acted as a roadblock. He explained that faculty interest is one of the most important aspects of choosing a program location.

“That means a cluster of faculty…one faculty member alone won’t do it,” Saldívar said. “It really takes a group of say, 10 to 12, 15 faculty who are willing to commit to being the coordinating group.”

However, Obeid explained that there are still faculty willing to be involved, including himself.

“If Stanford is willing to open a program in the Middle East, I would be very willing to help and support and be there,” he said.

Key said that the Arabic department does not have a lack of faculty interest, but a lack of faculty who have deep connections to safe places in the region. For example, Morocco is a stable Arabic-speaking country, but there is only one faculty member from Morocco in the Arabic Language Program.

“[Creating a BOSP in the Middle East] is definitely a good thing to aim for,” Key said.

“Students want to study Arabic, and we want them to go abroad,” Key said. “And there’s a problem, and we should try and fix it.”

Until such a program is established, rising sophomores can try to get Arabic immersion here at Stanford through “Arabic in America.” Sophomore College applications will remain open from March 10 to April 7.


Contact Emma Neiman at eneiman ‘at’

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