Students and faculty petition for an Arabic minor to increase cultural representation, reward learners


Illustration by Olivia Abeyta

Some Northwestern students are petitioning the University to create an Arabic minor.

Joanna Hou, Copy Editor

When Middle East and North African Languages Program Prof. Rana Raddawi started teaching at Northwestern, she said she was surprised there wasn’t any formal Arabic programming. 

“(There should be a minor) given the importance of the University, its very high reputation, expertise, needs of the students, wishes of the students and the importance of the language,” Raddawi said.

Students in Fall Quarter’s Arabic 211-1 class and the MENA Student Association felt the same way. Weinberg sophomore Sara Ibrahim, a board member on the organization and a former Daily op-ed contributor, worked with these groups to advocate for an Arabic minor at NU. 

Arabic is taught through NU’s MENA Languages Program. While students can use six Arabic courses to fulfill part of the MENA Studies major requirements, the major itself is not language-specific. 

“Arabic is one of the six official languages of the United Nations and the official language of 23 countries. There are more than 300 million Arabic speakers across the world,” Ibrahim said. “NU offers minors and majors in some cases for almost every other language program, and not all of those languages are as widely spoken as Arabic.” 

Students created two petitions to help establish an Arabic minor: 115 students signed one calling for its creation, and 48 signed another demonstrating interest in enrolling in an Arabic minor.

Raddawi has taught at several universities and said they all offered some form of it. An Arabic minor would benefit students in multiple ways, Raddawi said, because it could be fulfilling personally, careerwise and culturally. 

“We have a very rich program, a growing program with content courses,” Raddawi said. “So these are really worthwhile causes to be studied by the largest number possible of students.”

Importance for careers 

Ibrahim said being able to include language proficiency on resumes and job applications could help some students with their career goals. 

Communication freshman Rama Darayyad is a native Arabic speaker. She said she wants to help communities in need of an Arabic-speaking health professional and recognizes how important bilingualism is for her career.

“For me, for someone who wants to intertwine Arabic with their career and where the field of translation is completely different than spoken Arabic, I need to be set up with the proper tools,” Darayyad said. “One of the ways to do that is to have a minor in which the proper classes are being offered.”

Darayyad added that having a formal declaration of her skills is important and gives her more formal credibility than saying she’s a native speaker.

Raddawi said the minor would hold a certain academic influence in the professional world.

“The minor … allows (students) to declare their proficiency in Arabic — their language skills — in a formal manner, and to add it to their resume and to their job applications,” Raddawi said. “A minor has a certain weight, if it’s official and accredited by the University.” 

Cultural and religious values

An Arabic minor would also help MENA students connect with their culture, Ibrahim said. For many native speakers, she said the minor is important for furthering their Arabic knowledge, especially in literature.

For MENA students without previous Arabic instruction, Ibrahim said college is the time for them to connect with their culture. She said many Arab and MENA students did not have access to Arabic classes growing up and want to become fluent in the language. 

“It’s a really important way to identify with our homelands, to speak the language of our parents and the places where some of us may have been born or have lineage and connection to,” Ibrahim said. 

Darayyad said learning Arabic helps further her understanding of her religion. The Quran, the holy book of Islam, is also written in Classical Arabic, she said. 

“Having (a religious) connection to Arabic is unexplainable. It’s so significant, because knowing Arabic would help one better interact with the Quran and therefore better understand their religion,” Darayyad said. “So aside from it being academically important, it’s definitely a source of spirituality for myself and other students.”

Issues with retention

German Prof. Franziska Lys, director of the MENA Languages Program, said an Arabic minor would increase student participation in upper-level classes.

While Weinberg students can fulfill their two-year language requirement with Arabic, Lys said there are at least six other courses for students who choose to learn Arabic for four years. 

“We have a small number of students who continue in the fourth year and they are terrific students, and we would like for them to have something to show on their transcript,” Lys said. “We are hoping that there might be other students who will continue with the language because they have a way of putting a program together that makes sense for them and is recognized by the University.”

Arabic 316’s three-course sequence counts for Weinberg’s literature and fine arts distribution area. But the remainder of Arabic course offerings are currently unapplicable to a distribution requirement or a MENA major or minor. Because the courses don’t count for much program-wise, Lys said the setup does not recognize students for their hard work in language-learning and makes program retention more challenging. 

Looking forward 

The effort to create the Arabic minor is awaiting approval from Weinberg Dean Adrian Randolph, Lys said. Students, faculty and leadership need his permission to start the process and put together a proposal for the minor. 

Drafting the proposal would involve seeking input from students and faculty to design the curriculum and provide a general sense of what the minor should look like, Lys said. It then has to go through at least three meetings to become approved. 

“So an Arabic minor ideally would contain … six courses beyond second year that would include third- and fourth-year content classes in Arabic but also more language-focused classes in Arabic that deal with more grammatical issues,” Lys said. 

Raddawi said she feels “very optimistic” about the effort’s chances because of the number of students and higher leadership backing the initiative. 

With a minor, Raddawi said, the department could create new classes covering topics like intercultural communication, language and culture and gender equality in the Arab world. She said the department could also hire more staff to bridge gaps in knowledge. 

Based on the current timeline, Darayyad said they don’t expect a response from Randolph in time for the minor to be addressed during the winter Weinberg faculty meeting, where it could be approved by professors — pushing the timeline to spring. However, she said she’s still hopeful the minor will be implemented.

“I just hope that they see the overwhelming support and the significance of having a minor,” Darayyad said. “The fact that it was students who came together to propose this speaks for itself.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Sara Ibrahim’s position in the MENA Student Association. Ibrahim is a board member on the organization. The Daily regrets this error.

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