Arabic Fluency Draws Student to Tunisia

Intensive study program hosted by the U.S. State Department

Published: Aug 16, 2012
 The Critical Language Scholarship is a program of the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
The Critical Language Scholarship is a program of the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Catherine Gambel ’12 can trace her interest in the Arabic language back to one of her childhood friends, whose parents had come to the U.S. from Lebanon following the start of their country’s civil war in the 1970s.

“I used to love listening to them sitting in the kitchen and conversing in Arabic and French,” said Gambel, who now speaks French at an intermediate level as well.

During her junior year at UT, she travelled to Jordan and Lebanon over the winter break.

“It was there that I became exposed to the living conditions of displaced Palestinians in refugee camps,” said Gambel, who graduated in May with a degree in international and cultural studies. “I knew that I wanted to improve the lives of refugees throughout the Middle East through advocacy and education, and effective communication in Arabic is a necessary tool on this path.”

At UT, Gambel studied Arabic for just two semesters under Youssef Salhi.

“Everyone in the class approached the language with a very fun and open attitude, and we had a great professor,” Gambel said. “Even though I wasn’t able to take Arabic formally until my senior year, I feel very fortunate that I had the opportunity to be in that class.”

While taking a continuing studies Arabic course she met a student who introduced her to the Critical Language Scholarship, which was giving that student the opportunity to study Arabic in Morocco. So Gambel applied. She spent this summer in Tunisia immersed in the language and the culture.

“I learned a great deal in a very short amount of time. Before the program, I could barely introduce myself or talk about the weather,” Gambel said. “Now I have practiced speaking and writing in Arabic on a variety of topics, such as comparisons of women in Tunisia and the U.S., different regional stereotypes and my future career plans.”

The Critical Language Scholarship is a program of the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and offers undergraduate, graduate and Ph.D. students the opportunity to study one of 13 critical-need foreign languages for seven to 10 weeks abroad. In addition to Arabic, other languages include Hindi, Korean, Urdu, Chinese and Russian.

Gambel, who lived with a host family, spent her days in a classroom learning Modern Standard Arabic and the Tunisian dialect. She said they anticipated covering two university semesters’ worth of Arabic in eight weeks, but they actually went a little further.

“The fast pace felt overwhelming at times, but it was definitely worth it,” she said.

In the afternoon, Gambel had one-on-one speaking practice with native Tunisian instructors, followed by cultural activities like calligraphy or scheduled socialization time to speak with locals.

“Getting to know all of the people involved was definitely one of the most rewarding aspects,” said Gambel, who wants a career working with the Arab community.

“I hope to be a part of the efforts towards improving relations between refugees and their host countries, and to contribute to the ongoing dialogues between the U.S. and countries in the Middle East,” she said. “I believe language is an essential part of understanding culture.”


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