Columbian College considers Arabic major, minor

Sophomore Bokum Lee wants to work as an Arabic translator, but the Middle East studies major has to get over one roadblock: GW does not offer a degree in Arabic.

That could change this fall, as the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences will make a preliminary decision May 1 on whether it will create an Arabic major and minor.

Lee, who has twice been rejected by the Columbian College to create her own Arabic major, said without the degree, she may not be able to study the language in graduate school.

“I want to be acknowledged that I majored in Arabic,” Lee said. “Majoring in Arabic only would allow me to include more dialect classes and enable me to further my proficiency in Arabic to a professional level.”

The Arabic program was folded into the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, which also includes Hebrew, Greek and Latin, in 1994. A 15-credit minor in Semitic languages and cultures requires two semesters of Hebrew along with the Arabic coursework.

Columbian College Dean Peg Barratt, Provost Steven Lerman and the Board of Trustees would all have to sign off on the new degree.

“As with any proposal for a new major, the committee will want to examine whether the program is academically sound, whether the course offerings are well structured and whether the faculty expertise is strong,” Barratt said. “The Arabic proposal will get serious attention, owing to the strong student interest and the University’s strategic commitment with regard to globalization.”

Seven students advocated April 23 for the major and minor at a separate Columbian College internal review committee meeting – part of each department’s periodic review that sketches out its mission and resources.

Both reviews come on the heels of lobbying by Mohssen Esseesy, an associate professor and the head of the Arabic program, to earn approval from the Columbian College for the degree.

More than 80 students in the Arabic program said they would major or minor in the language if the Columbian College offered the options, according to a survey distributed by Esseesy to students in Arabic classes last month.

If approved, Esseesy said he would hope to offer the degree by this fall, but added that “these things take time.”

Esseesy did not answer questions about the Arabic program’s push for the degree, the potential major’s requirements or why there has never been an Arabic degree before because the change is under review.

More students have streamed into Arabic classes over the past decade, expanding the courses nearly sixfold from the 2003-2004 academic year to hit 700 students in the 2009-2010 school year, the latest data available.

The Arabic program offered 29 course sections this spring, taught by five full-time and eight adjunct professors. Last fall, Esseesy said the Arabic program would look to hire two more full-time professors to meet growing demand for the language.

The number of students learning Arabic has also surged nationally, with enrollment at universities around the country growing by 46 percent between 2006 and 2009 as two American wars in the Middle East shined a light on the region, according to a 2010 study by the Modern Language Association.

This week, Columbian College administrators will receive the internal review committee’s report, which associate professor of English Margaret Soltan – one of three professors on the internal review committee – said would have weight, but not act as a final decider on expanding Arabic offerings because the separate undergraduate studies committee will also play a role.

“Inevitably, I’m sensing enormous pressure for an Arabic major,” Soltan said. “We don’t know what we’re going to recommend, but there’s undeniably surging interest in the field from students.”

Most of the University’s market basket schools offer a major in Arabic or an Arabic studies minor, including Washington University in St. Louis and Georgetown and Tufts universities.

Junior Sally Ashkar grew up speaking Arabic in a Syrian household and hoped to hone her reading and writing skills in the language as well as learn more about her culture at GW.

In her sixth course in the language, the international affairs and philosophy double major said she and the surging number of students taking Arabic are shut out from adding it to their official academic credentials because of the lack of a major or minor.

“With GW being such a hub for international students, and with a recent influx in students focusing their studies on the Middle East, an Arabic minor is something GW should have had in place a long time ago,” Ashkar said.

Shayda Shahbazi and Cory Weinberg contributed to this report.

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