Vassar has offered classes in the Arabic language since 2003, when Visiting Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Mootacem Mhiri was asked to begin teaching the language to students here. During the tenures of Professor Mhiri and Africana Studies Adjunct Instructor Tagreed Al-Haddad, an intermediate, upper-intermediate, and additional beginner class have been added to our repertoire of Arabic language classes. While these efforts are certainly applaudable, Vassar must continue to add an advanced-level Arabic class to its catalogue in order for students to remain competitive with the countless other students in America studying a language deemed by the United States Department of State as a “critical language.” It would support the college’s mission of providing a broad and deep curriculum to students, and maintain its commitment to ensure that students can take the classes required to finish the correlate in Arabic Language and Culture.
Many of the institutions with which Vassar often compares itself to, such as Williams College, Amherst College, and Oberlin College, have Arabic programs which far exceed the depth of Vassar’s classes, with twenty-two, eight, and six classes respectively. Vassar only offers four Arabic classes, and has been unwilling to add an advanced class due to the budgetary constraints that are affecting the entire school. Instead, it’s been mentioned that Vassar pays for Arabic-language students to take advanced Arabic at Bard College, without including transportation costs. Rather than helping with the development of an Arabic program at another school, it seems wiser to support the department at our own school instead. The professors here are dedicated to expanding the program and the students—thirty-nine and growing—are interested in taking classes.
Part of Vassar’s mission is to make accessible “the means of a thorough, well-proportioned and liberal education” to all students. The college recognizes the importance of language study; it requires all students to take one full year of a language in order to graduate. If Vassar truly wants to live up to its mission, the college must invest time and resources in fully developing our Arabic program, including media and literary Arabic, both of which could count as an advanced-level Arabic class. My classes at Vassar have allowed me to gain insight into different parts of the world, expanding my understanding of the relationships I have with other people and offering alternative views of long-held beliefs. Thousands of Arabic-speakers arrive to the United States every year, and it is important that our citizenry are culturally fluent and competent in the languages spoken in and customs of the Middle East and North Africa. Our “well-proportioned and liberal education” should prepare us to communicate with as many diverse peoples as possible.
The requirements for completing a correlate in Arabic Language and Culture include “five units of Arabic at the introductory, intermediate, and upper levels and one Arabic literature course or another approved appropriate alternative course.” However, an increasing number of students are studying Arabic in high school, due to its status as a “critical language,” and are only able to complete four credits of Arabic language study before graduating due to the dearth of appropriate classes. In establishing a correlate in Arabic Language and Culture, I believe Vassar made a commitment to ensure the ability and opportunity of its students to finish it. There are currently at least eight students in the upper-intermediate class who fit within these bounds, and the number increases every year. With this in mind, it would be wise for Vassar to further enshrine its promise to these students and expand the program further.
The Arabic program at Vassar is still developing and finding its niche within the college’s curriculum. The professors are extremely dedicated to our acquisition of the language and the students are devoted to gaining fluency in it, many of whom end up studying Arabic abroad. Additionally, the administrators with whom we’ve spoken have been receptive to our struggle to add an advanced Arabic course, but without the will to push our goals further. However, it is my belief that we must go beyond talking and actively push for this course and demonstrate that proficiency in Arabic is good for the health of Vassar, the intellectual and social diversity of the United States, and the continuation of a healthy democracy.
—Saul Ulloa ’15 is an International Studies major.