For students thinking globally, consider Arabic studies, Carolina experts say

Heidi Finley

Students looking for a major that will translate into job opportunities with a global outlook should consider studying Arabic, Carolina experts in the field say.

“Arabic is an excellent choice to prepare for professional engagement locally and internationally,” said Jodi Khater, a senior lecturer and Arabic section coordinator at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Modern Standard Arabic is an official language in 29 countries, and the language is spoken by more than 400 million people worldwide, Khater said.

Yet, less than 1 percent of U.S. students study Arabic and other “critical need” languages, which are designated as such because they are tied to national security interests.

Outside of government and military service, learning Arabic can also give students an edge in professions such as communications, international business, public health and academia, along with work in non-governmental or nonprofit organizations.

The need for Arabic language experience is “strong globally right now,” said Rebecca Joubin, an associate professor of Arab studies at Davidson University in Davidson.

Khater said most students will begin studying Arabic in college, not in high school. “This is important for high school seniors to understand – they are not ‘behind’ because they have not studied Arabic in high school. It is generally assumed they have not!”

Where to go in the Carolinas

Khater said few U.S. universities offer a major or program concentration in Arabic. But students in the Carolinas have options.

N.C. State offers a major in foreign languages and literatures with a concentration in Arabic language and culture. Davidson offers a major in Arabic studies through its Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill offers a major in Asian studies with a concentration in Arab cultures.

The University of South Carolina in Columbia teaches first- to third-year Arabic, as does the College of Charleston. Wofford College in Spartanburg offers first-year Arabic.

Joubin said the program at Davidson is intensive. Many universities study 10 chapters of Modern Standard Arabic in the first year, however Davidson studies 20 chapters.

“You can measure progress continually,” Joubin said, adding that culture is brought in from the very beginning. Classes include Arabic proverbs, watching movies and television serials, and news clips.

Joubin said Arabic is very interdisciplinary, so other classes tied to the material are important. “Language can’t be disassociated from politics, and what makes Davidson strong is having strong courses in history, political science and religion to take that broadens their perspective.”

Study abroad

At N.C. State’s program, four years of Arabic language is required, along with courses in history, religious studies, political science and anthropology, “so that students of Arabic are well equipped to understand cultural and historical contexts and nuance in the Middle East,” Khater said.

Khater said students are strongly encouraged to study abroad in the region, “not only to strengthen their language skills in an Arabic dialect, but also to have access to the transformative experience that only study abroad can bring to their overall knowledge base and expertise in the field of Arabic language study.”

She added that study abroad is particularly important for Arabic language study because fluency requires a knowledge of both Modern Standard Arabic, used in writing and formal speech, and a demonstrated competency in a spoken dialect, which differs from country to country.

“A lot of students at least do a semester, but more and more do a whole year,” Joubin said of Davidson students. “There’s nothing like living in the context.”

Funding opportunities

Both federal and private funds are available to help some Arabic students study abroad.

The National Security Education Program is one federal initiative designed to equip more U.S. citizens with foreign language and international skills. It emphasizes the study of Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Russian and Turkish.

The program’s Boren Scholars receive up to $20,000, and Boren Fellows receive up to $30,000 to study abroad while focusing on the languages and cultures most critical to national security. In exchange, they agree to utilize those skills within the government by seeking and securing federal employment in a national security position for at least one year. Priority is given to the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and State, and the intelligence community.

Similarly, the U.S. State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship Program sends U.S. students overseas to study Arabic in Jordan, Morocco and Oman. That program doesn’t have a service requirement, but its alumni are expected to use the language professionally.

Khater said N.C. State has a successful record of its students receiving Boren scholarships and fellowships, as well as fellowships at the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad and Fulbright fellowships.

“Our students obtain these highly competitive scholarships not only because of the high quality of our Arabic program, but also because we work very closely with our students throughout the application process,” she said.

At Davidson, several students have also received Fulbrights and Critical Language Scholarships. Further, the college’s Dean Rusk International Studies Program grants awards to students for study abroad, often to the Qasid Arabic Institute in Amman, Jordan. Persian has also been added to the curriculum at Davidson to give students a competitive edge, Joubin said.

N.C. State’s Arabic students have a collaborative relationship with the university’s Moise A. Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies, which also provides some scholarships students who wish to study abroad.

“I haven’t had students who are having a hard time finding something afterward,” Joubin said. “It’s important to do what you love … but it’s also important for a student to see that it’s something they can support themselves with.”


Heidi Finley is the editor of Carolina College Bound. Send questions or suggestions to