Sophomore Haley Brees wants to become an Egyptologist, but recently ran into a major roadblock as University of South Dakota officials cut the Arabic language program she had invested a year of her studies to learn.
“This seems to be a trend at USD, where language or cultural classes that could be offered are being stopped because not enough people signed up or the university just doesn’t feel the course is as important as others,” Brees said. “It is really frustrating because there are people like me who are incredibly interested in Arabic and want to experience the diverse culture.”
USD reintroduced the Arabic language program in the 2009 spring semester, and was offering five classes at present. Taught by teaching assistant Musheera Anis, a native speaker from Egypt, she said she was made aware of the university’s decision to cut the program in mid-March.
The reasons for the cut range from low enrollment to limits set by the South Dakota Board of Regents on the number of courses USD can offer to students, said Anis.
Arabic was cut not because of want of support from the administration said Leroy Meyer, department chair of Languages, Linguistics and Philosophy. The issue, he said, is the difficulty for a small university like USD to sustain courses that cannot enroll more than 10 students.
S.D. Board of Regents policy stipulates a minimum of 10 students per course with a limited number of exceptions, which would include Arabic. The act of cutting the courses was not a sudden decision, said Meyer, as those involved had to consider demand over offering more language variety to USD.
But low enrollment is not a good enough answer for sophomore Miranda McIlroy. She said the small classes allowed for more one-on-one interactions, where Anis could make sure that no student fell behind.
“Everybody sees I’m taking Arabic, and they make the assumption that it is ridiculously hard to learn. And it is difficult,” she said. “But (Anis) allows the curriculum to be fun and she allows you the time to understand what she’s teaching you. We have this opportunity because of the class size, so I don’t get why it makes sense to cut it.”
Sophomore Brianna Williamson said Arabic classes are more than just a look at the language. The classes also allowed students to learn the culture and even take trips to Sioux Falls to meet native speakers within certain Arab communities in the area.
A pastor’s daughter, Williamson said attending her first Muslim prayer was an eye opening interaction.
“Sometimes, I think the media has this set stereotype of what it means to be Muslim,” she said. “Attending prayer, interacting with people in the community, this class isn’t just about language, it is about the people speaking it.”
Arabic is the official language of over 20 countries with more than 300 million native speakers, according to the U.S. Department of State.
USD will still offer Spanish, French, German and Lakota for the time being, but Tim Schorn, chair of international studies, said Arabic was the only available program on campus considered a critical language by the State Department.
Schorn said the decision to cut the program was disappointing, especially since three of the four languages USD now offers are European-based.
“With the regental policy and new budget model, low enrollment is difficult to sustain,” he said. “In this case, it raised the question about the university’s commitment to Arabic. And the fact is we did not jump into the program with both feet.”
Anis said a lack of advertising led to a large number of USD students being unaware of the program, which she called unfortunate because of the benefit the language could be for jobs in areas like business, government, finance and the media.
For students like Brees, Williamson and McIlroy, who are enrolled in Arabic 102, the options they have to continue their Arabic studies relies heavily on if they study abroad. This option, said Brees, would be easier to swallow if students weren’t required to put in thousands of dollars to pay for international travel and living expenses.
“I know there are opportunities,” she said. “And if they become available and affordable, I would definitely pursue studying abroad.”