Aleph, Be, Pe…and knowing your alphabets from your abjads

By Greg McDonald

Unlike most of the rest of my MPP cohort, my summer thus far has not been spent doing an internship, per se.  Rather, in late March, I found out that Duke had selected me to receive a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) summer fellowship.  This fellowship, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, is intended primarily to incentivize the learning of foreign languages by American college students. To a degree, the fellowship does so with an emphasis on languages considered to be vital to the strategic interests of the United States.

I decided to apply for this fellowship because I’m a national security concentration in the Sanford School, but I thought that my knowledge of certain key players in the Middle East – and the languages they speak – was somewhat lacking. Plus, quite frankly, I thought I’d enjoy this more than an actual summer “job” (Sorry Donna!).  To remedy this, since around mid-May, I’ve been taking Farsi classes five days a week at the Department of Defense-funded Critical Languages Institute at NC State University in Raleigh.

I should admit that prior to this year, I was a total stranger to summer classes. In fact, as best I can recall, I had never set foot in a classroom past June 1st in any school I had ever attended.  I had also never taken a class with anywhere near the intensity or contact hours of the class I am taking this summer.  I am in class for around 25 hours per week.  To give this number some context, I spend nearly as much time in my summer class in six days as we do in a regular class at Sanford in an entire semester. To say that I was uncertain of what the experience would actually be like would be an understatement.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the class can be a little overwhelming at times, with not much time to absorb material before having more thrown at you, and there is also a sense of being burnt out that creeps in now and then. However, thus far, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the time I’ve spent learning about Iran and its language, and I don’t regret not having done a more “traditional” internship.  After all, where else are you going to have the chance every day to ask Iranians ad nauseum about their country and what it’s really like – as opposed to how it is portrayed in the media – as one of only seven people in a class?

With time, I will be able to build on the foundation I’ve begun this summer with Farsi, and the knowledge I’ve gained about Iran itself will be important going forward both academically and (hopefully) professionally.  In terms of what my career goals are and addressing the substantive weaknesses I thought I had, I know that I’ve made the right decision with regards to what I am doing this summer. If anyone is interested in an area of public policy that is foreign language-related, by all means I recommend pursuing a FLAS summer – or academic year (AY) – fellowship.

PS: As you might have guessed, the conspicuous lack of pictures in my write-up is due to the fact that I’ve spent most of my summer thus far in a classroom…and I think we’ve all seen enough of those over the past year or so.

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