Critical language skills: UI graduate lands prestigious scholarship; will study Arabic in Morocco

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Brandon JenningsBy Brittany Caplin for Iowa Now

Originally from Burlington, Iowa, Brandon Jennings has always had an interest in the Middle East. Very soon, he'll have an address in the Greater Middle East.

Jennings, a senior graduating this May with a major in international studies and minors in religious studies, chemistry, and Arabic, was recently awarded the prestigious Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) through the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. He will be going to Morocco for a 10-week program to study Arabic, which is considered a critical language.

He is one of three University of Iowa students who received the scholarship, along with Eleanor King and Navid Zarrinnal; 575 students across the nation receive the scholarships. The CLS program is part of a U.S. government effort to expand dramatically the number of Americans studying and mastering critical foreign languages. Critical languages include Arabic, Azerbaijani, Bangla/Bengali, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Punjabi, Russian, Turkish, and Urdu.

Jennings currently serves as the UI International Programs communications intern, in addition to working with the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council and the Council for International Visitors to Iowa Cities. He also participated as a conversation partner for the English as a Second Language program.

Jennings’ international experience will be put to the test when he leaves for Morocco in a couple of weeks. Jennings says he is ready to take on the challenges that lie ahead in his next adventure.

Iowa Now had a chance to catch up with Jennings before his graduation date to reflect on his international experiences through his time at the university.

Q. What sparked your interest in international affairs?

A. During my high school years I was involved with the debate team. We would have to give five- to seven-minute extemporaneous speeches about various international topics, and my favorite topics were always about the Middle East. I had this Orientalist fascination with the region when I was younger and would spend extra hours researching the topic for my own interest. These days I am more interested in Orientalism.

Q. What has been your favorite international experience?

A. I studied in Lebanon during the summer of 2010 as part of the Summer Institute for Intensive Arabic and Culture (SINARC) program. This was a six-week intensive language immersion program hosted by the Lebanese American University in Hamra, Beirut. During the weekdays we would be taught Arabic; on the weekends, our program directors would organize excursions out to Lebanese historic and cultural sites.

Going to Lebanon was definitely my most memorable international experience. I am happy that I impulsively signed up when my Arabic professor emailed me about the opportunity. Usually snap decisions don’t work out too well for me. Fortunately, this one did.

Q. What do you miss from your time spent in Lebanon?

A. I would go back in a heartbeat. While I miss a lot of things about Lebanon, the food really stands out. Lebanese pita bread is outstanding; I can’t find anything like it here. It is not like typical pita bread and the locals would slather melted goat cheese on it. I have had a craving for goat cheese ever since. There was also shawarma, falafel, baba ghanoush, kebab, and many other foods. I miss all of these delicious meals.

On a more serious note, I really miss all of the friends that I befriended there from around the world. I met some amazing people during my time there.

Q. Are you ready to begin the next chapter of your life in Morocco?

A. I am very nervous and excited. It still seems so surreal to me. It is definitely going to be a challenge but I am going to learn so much. While I am there I will not be allowed to speak English. Formal Arabic is pretty distinct from conversational Arabic, especially the Moroccan dialect, so that will be challenging. After my program, I would like to stay there for another year or so. I have been thinking about getting my certification in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) as a means of supporting myself.

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