Friday, May 13, 2016

Cuyamaca College student receives U.S. State Department language scholarship

Rachel Becker
Rachel Becker didn’t know anything about the Arabic language until she became close friends with two Iraqi refugees who were classmates at Cuyamaca College. Now the 21-year-old Spring Valley resident is on her way to Jordan through a fully-funded, U.S. Department of State-sponsored immersion program to study the language while living with a host family over the summer. 

“I’m very excited about going to Jordan, living with a host family, learning the language and becoming immersed in the culture,” Becker said. “It’s an experience of a lifetime. I just hope to learn as much of the language as I can.” 

That shouldn’t be a problem. Becker will undergo approximately one academic year of university-level Arabic coursework during the eight-week program, and she is not allowed to speak English while in school or with her host family. 

She’s also pretty determined. 

“She was one of my best students,” Arabic instructor Aklas Sheai said. “She did a great job in my class.” 

Becker leaves San Diego May 31 and will study at the Jordan Language Academy in Amman with 26 other Americans accepted into the Critical Language Scholarship Program. The Critical Language Scholarship Program is part of a U.S. government effort to expand the number of Americans studying and mastering critical foreign languages. Selected finalists hail from 48 states and the District of Columbia, and represent more than 200 institutions of higher education from across the United States, including public and private universities and community colleges.  

Over the past 10 years, the Critical Language Scholarship Program has sent more than 5,000 American undergraduate and graduate students overseas to learn critical languages all over the world. It provides fully-funded, group-based intensive language instruction and structured cultural enrichment experiences. Critical Language Scholarship Program participants are expected to continue their language study beyond the scholarship and apply their critical language skills in their future professional careers. 

Becker represents the best of Cuyamaca College, College President Julianna Barnes said. 

“Cuyamaca College is deeply committed to diversity, equity and inclusion,” Barnes said. “We are so proud of Rachel and know that this opportunity will allow her to be both linguistically and culturally equipped to succeed in our multicultural society.” 

Becker’s plans call for earning a master’s degree in Arabic and perhaps working for the State Department or a nonprofit in the Arabic-speaking community. She graduates this spring, but will be out of the country during her June 1 commencement at Cuyamaca College. 

Her motivation to learn Arabic evolved from both faith and fate. Becker, who is Christian, felt it her duty to learn more about the Arabic culture and language after she became friends with the two Iraqi classmates. 

“Our calling in life is to love and obey God and to do good by others,” she said. “I knew nothing about the Arabic community, a community that is growing in the East County, and these are my neighbors. You really can’t know your neighbor unless you can speak their language and understand their culture.” 

When discussing her interest in learning Arabic, an acquaintance doubted she could. “He said he didn’t think Americans could learn Arabic,” Becker said. “I took that as a challenge.” 

Becker almost immediately enrolled in Arabic courses at both Grossmont and Cuyamaca colleges. It wasn’t easy. The alphabet was unlike anything she had seen before. “The language has a lot of sounds you don’t hear in English. The grammar is a lot different. The first semester was very difficult.” 

But the instructors were determined. And the setting at Cuyamaca College is perfect for those wanting to learn the language. “It’s extremely helpful to learn Arabic at a college that has such a large Arabic population,” Becker said. “You’re hearing the language being spoken all the time.” 

And while she is “far, far, far from being fluent in the language,” Becker has a ready Arabic reply when asked if she’ll be able to join in those conversations upon her return. 

Inshallah,” she said. “God willing.”