Majoring in the Middle East

CMC’s multidisciplinary focus on the region is expanding

When David Franzel ‘10 arrived at Claremont McKenna four years ago, none of the Claremont Colleges offered an Arabic course. Absent the option of continuing to learn the language, Franzel began to petition the administration to create what is now CMC’s Middle East Studies Program. Its first graduate, he is now teaching English, Mathematics, and History at an Egyptian high school.

In Egypt, he also hopes to further his Arabic education. “Our program’s great,” says Franzel, who studied abroad at the American University in Cairo. “But Arabic is a tough language, and you need to be in a country, speaking the language daily to become fluent.” He thinks that while Arabic courses at CMC cannot guarantee fluency, they provide a “great foundation.”

Due largely to Franzel’s petition, Arabic became an option for 5C students in 2008 with the hiring of Professor Bassam Frangieh, who had taught for 14 years at Yale University, where he was a Senior Lecturer and Director of the Modern Languages Program.

“We lucked out by getting Bassam from Yale,” Franzel notes. “He and Professor Haley really pushed for a Middle East Studies major.”

According to Frangieh, students were the catalysts. “The creation of the Middle East Studies Program came at the demand of the students,” he says. “They were ready to take Arabic.”

Beyond the mere curricular addition of another language, the creation of an entire Middle East Studies major reflects the CMC administration’s broader focus on the region. The major requires ten courses, composed of six core classes and four electives. Proficiency in a Middle Eastern language, usually Arabic, is a necessity, and students are encouraged to study abroad.

But the real innovation occurs outside the classroom: the department invites writers, musicians, poets, dancers, and ambassadors to address the students. These weekly events seek to bolster students’ language skills and provide direct cultural experience. “We’re doing our best to give everything possible to students,” Frangieh says.
Given the major’s popularity among 5C students, the program is expanding. In the past two years, three Arabic professors have been hired. “After my first year,” Frangieh recalls, “the students wanted to continue learning Arabic, so we needed another professor to teach the new first-years. After that, we needed two more to meet student demand.”

CMC is currently in the process of hiring an Assistant Professor of Arabic, and the History and Government Departments are hiring Middle Eastern-focused faculty as well.

But even this multidisciplinary approach might not be enough. “Very few schools have strong Middle Eastern Studies majors, and we need to expand to be stronger,” says Franzel, who recommends hiring three additional Arabic professors and offering three rather than one class per week. “We could also include Farsi and Hebrew classes.”

As expected, further expansion is costly. But Franzel believes that, over time, the program will enjoy strong support from alumni, especially when students’ post-graduation achievements become publicized. “Once we have more graduates, we’ll have more donations to the program,” he concludes. Other potential donors include ambassadors, foundations, and fellowships.

Beyond expanding the Middle East Studies major, Frangieh has other plans in the works, including a recently approved Arabic major “so students can take more courses in Arabic Language and Literature.”

As for the program’s first graduate? “I’m not sure what I’ll do next,” Franzel confesses. “I prefer to wait to see all of my opportunities before deciding anything. Business school, maybe?”

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Published with support from Generation Progress.

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