The Oberlin Review
<< Front page News February 10, 2006

Oberlin Vies For More MENA Studies

The 2005 Student Senate referendum reports that a little over half the student body feels that Oberlin College should establish a Middle Eastern and North African Studies program. Snagging a national grant might just be the way for the financially-strained school to achieve this goal.

President Nancy Dye and 99 other college and university presidents were invited to a conference last weekend in Washington D.C., titled “International Education in the United States.” This invitation signifies that Oberlin is in the running to receive a portion of a $114 million federal budget for a program to aid in foreign language education: the National Security Language Initiative.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Education Margaret Spelling sponsored the conference. President Bush opened with a speech supporting the program’s mission: more young Americans learning such critical modern languages as Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Chinese.

“This initiative will cover K-12 foreign language programs and also help establish new foreign language programs in colleges and universities,” said Dye.

Although Dye was skeptical of the capabilities of the program’s budget, she affirmed the importance of such an initiative.

“I very much agree that far more young Americans should learn these and other languages,” she said.

“Oberlin and other colleges and universities must do more to encourage serious foreign language study.”

Dye cited Oberlin’s Chinese program as one of the best in the country. She expressed an interest in developing a strong Arabic program and possibly adding instruction in Farsi, something very rarely taught in American undergraduate programs.

“Given the importance of Iran in world affairs, far more Americans should also have an opportunity to learn Farsi and to learn about Iran,” said Dye, who has herself extensively traveled in Iran.

Despite this interest on the administration’s part, many Oberlin students are disappointed with the college’s recent failure to enrich its MENA course offerings. Last year, Oberlin politics professor Khalid Medani left the department for Stanford University and has yet to be replaced. Medani specialized in Middle Eastern politics and was the advisor to the Middle Eastern Students Association.

Azadeh Pourzand, a College junior, is an active member of MESA. Last fall, she and a group of students reactivated the organization and have been working since to develop an official concentration. She described Medani’s departure as a dispiriting setback, though the group is still active and passionate.

“We really think that a college like Oberlin really needs to have some sort of concentration, minor or major [in Middle Eastern studies],” said Pourzand.

She and another junior, Ozlem Gemichi, ran for Student Senate on this platform, and were responsible for the items relating to MENA studies on the recent referendum. The group has also brought in numerous speakers from the Middle East.

Recently, an ad hoc committee focusing on MENA was established, partly in response to Medani’s departure. Professor Anna Gade, the Islam specialist in the Religion department, identified the committee’s purpose.

“To examine the manner in which Oberlin teaches all subjects relevant to the field, including language  instruction,” said Gade. “To make recommendations, as appropriate, for reorganization and/or expansion in these fields of study.”

Professor Gade did not confirm whether or not the committee would replace Medani.

“[The committee will] discuss whether [the] position should be returned, and if so, in what form,” said Gade.

The committee will also discuss offering courses in Arabic language and study abroad options regionally relevant to MENA.

Gade emphasized the importance of student input in this process.

“We are all very eager to know what students think about the future directions we could take at Oberlin and more widely,” she said.

Pourzand, for one, feels that the student body is clamoring for information about the Middle East.

“I personally sometimes feel like I am attacked by so many questions about the Middle East and Iran by students that if there were more professors, more of a guide, it wouldn’t be such an issue,” she said. “Oberlin’s a progressive college, and these are current events happening.”


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