July 13, 2015
Student Success Story: An Interview with Barrett Shelley
Winner of the 2015 Boren Scholarship and the UN's Many Languages, One World Contest
An intensive language program abroad can be an illuminating experience for many students. Some soar above expectation to achieve rare academic success - Barrett Shelley ('14) is one of them. We interviewed him about his experience to give other students an idea of what it takes to achieve excellence in Arabic language. Need inspiration? Check out what this award-winning scholar has to say about learning Arabic as a foreign language:
What sparked your interest in the Arabic language? How have your interests and motivations changed since you began studying the language?
I was initially drawn to Arabic because I was looking for a challenge. I was a sophomore in college, and I was nearing completion of my degree in sociology. My advisor told me I should choose a minor in something fun to finish the rest of my required credits in college. Instead of choosing something “fun,” I decided I wanted to pursue something that I knew very little about, Arabic. Let me backtrack, my freshman year of college one of my childhood friends whose family was of Pakistani ethnicity kept telling me how interesting and cool his introductory Arabic class was. I had intended to borrow his textbook, but never actually had the opportunity. However, I remember him showing me the script and weird characters the letters were written in and it sparked my curiosity. I wondered if I could ever read and write in such a bizarre sort of handwriting. For whatever reason, this lingering desire had remained in me, and I wanted to step outside of my comfort zone and explore something totally new, so I did.
Throughout your academic career, what proportion of your time and energy would you say you've spent on Arabic?
Of my academic career, I have spent a substantial portion of it studying Arabic. To date, I have spent a total of around four years studying Arabic. I initially took a year and a half of Arabic courses (3 semesters which consisted of 4 courses). However, I then left my Arabic studies as I intently pursued Spanish for a year when I studied in Argentina and Spain. Upon return, I did not know if I had the ability to catch up and regain my lost skills, however, I met with a professor who helped me regain a bit of confidence. Incidentally, the class I needed was not offered, so I had to enroll in a course that was a semester beyond the course I was supposed to take. To simplify, I was supposed to take Intermediate Arabic II, but it was not offered so I enrolled in Advanced Arabic I. It was a challenging year. However, I had no idea what was in store for me the following summer.
The summer of 2014, I traveled to Amman, Jordan where I participated in the Al-Mashriq summer program. I remember arriving to Jordan and suddenly realizing my interpersonal and communication skills were very weak. I felt lost and unable to convey even basic desires. However, I began coursework at the Al-Mashriq Center for two months. I can honestly say that this summer was probably the turning point in my Arabic abilities. The classes taught a mixture of Jordanian dialect and the Formal dialect that really taught and enabled me to express my personality in Arabic. Moreover, the school made me focus on my writing which was a very weak area of my Arabic abilities. I left the summer able to communicate verbally as well as with a solid foundation of grammar for which to grow and build my future writing skills. It was truly a great summer.
Following the summer of 2014, I finished out my degree in the 2014-2015 academic year in my Arabic studies. I was also accepted into the Arabic Overseas Flagship Program after submitting an application that also consisted of proficiency tests. I am now currently in Meknes, Morocco where I am in a year-long intensive Arabic program. In the program we study Darija, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, Egyptian Arabic and the Formal Arabic. Moroccan dialect is one of the most distant dialects of Arabic from that of native speakers in the Levant and Egypt, so my first week or so here has been filled with quickly trying to learn a somewhat new language.
What has been the most rewarding part of your Arabic studies to date?
The most rewarding part of my Arabic studies has probably just been the incredible feeling of being able to converse in a language that is so distant from my mother tongue. It is so rewarding to experience such a vastly different culture first hand through the mechanism of language.
Can you describe some major challenges that you've encountered and how you overcame them?
As far as challenges go, I have experienced my fair share of them while learning Arabic. The two greatest challenges I have faced in Arabic have been learning to speak in dialect and learning to write well, with style. With regards to dialect, the formal Arabic language is written and can be searched in dictionaries etc. However, the many different Arabic dialects are not written, so it is no easy task to pick up the language. Thus, it requires a great deal of one-on-one interaction with locals and persistence. I still have days where I feel inadequate or embarrassed when I make mistakes while speaking, but the most important lesson that Arabic has taught me is to persist and push forward. No matter what, I want to make progress and that means intently and purposefully driving conversations and traversing areas of my language that are weak, so that I can overcome them and speak with a wider linguistic arsenal of tools. With regards to dialects, if you see me interacting with locals, I am constantly jotting down notes on my phone of new words and phrases. While this might seem over the top, it helps me learn them because at night, I review my notes in order to cement the phrases and words into my vocabulary so I can continually become a more well-rounded speaker. I would suggest this tactic to anyone desiring to most efficiently attack a language.
Secondly, writing. Developing good, solid writing skills in Arabic is a challenge. It is one thing to know grammar and it is another to write like a native speaker, especially in a language as rich as Arabic. My time at Al-Mashriq was really only the beginning of my struggle to write well, and I am still fighting the battle. However, this past year, I invested many, many hours on improving my writing skills. I worked with native speakers to teach me techniques and most importantly, I read. I read a lot, and I began to write down phrases that I liked from newspaper and academic articles. What was happening at first was that I would see a great, eloquent phrase and I would understand it. However, I could not recall it in my own writing. Therefore, I began writing down new phrases that I found in a word document on my computer. I would then incorporate these phrases, when appropriate, into my own writing to make it richer, and to add some flavor. To be honest, while my writing has improved, it still has a long way to go, and this is a common theme with language. When you break one barrier or reach a certain goal, well, you probably have already set your sights on a new one that seems much harder to obtain than the one you previously achieved.
Basically, the two best tips I can give for learning language is persistence and a short memory. Forget the moment where you messed up and embarrassed yourself, its not important. Be persistent, don’t give up. Arabic is one of the most challenging languages to learn, so keep attacking your weaknesses, and they will become your strengths.
You recently won some awards for academic excellence in Arabic. Can you tell us about them?
This year I won a few different awards. First of all, I won the Boren Award. The Boren Award funds students who are studying what the state department deems as critical languages. The award is very competitive, and for every award offered I believe there is about 5 people competing for it, so the odds are 1 in 5. The award amounts to $20,000 and I am required to spend one year working for the federal government in an area of national security.
I also won the Many Languages, One World Contest. For this contest, I submitted an essay just shy of 2000 words on gender equality in the Middle East. The official topic was:
“The essay should relate to the post-2015 global development agenda, in the context of the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, and the definition of new goals reflecting the imperative of global sustainable development that recognizes, and is enriched by, cultural and linguistic diversity.”
I specifically wrote about Gender Equality in the Middle East. The contest consisted of two rounds of judging for the actual content and writing style. After I passed the second state of judging, I was asked to participate in a thirty-minute Skype interview in Arabic. After the interview, I was notified a few weeks later that I was a contest winner.
The rules of the contest stipulate that the essay must be written by a university student in a language the student did not study in high school, thus I wrote my essay in Arabic.
The contest is open to anyone in any university throughout the world, and this year there were over 1250 essay submissions. I am one of 70 winners that represent each of the six UN official languages. Each language group will design a presentation to present before the United Nations. I am assuming the topics will revolve around the United Nations sustainable development goals for 2015, but I am not certain of this. Therefore, I will be meeting with the other 10 (approximately) winners from my language group throughout the Youth Forum at Adelphi University before speaking at the United Nations with my group on Friday, the 24th of July. The events take place from July 20th – 26th in New York City.
Do you have any concrete career plans/goals/aspirations for the coming years?
I am currently studying for the LSAT, which I will be taking in Morocco this October. Assuming I receive a good score, I will be applying to law schools in December in hopes of starting law school next year. I do not know exactly what type of law I want to pursue, but I am interested in possibly working in the field of human rights or some form of international law where I can use my language skills.
Finally, what advice would you give to all of those students of Arabic out there?
Advice I would give aside from the advice I previously mentioned:
Studying Arabic requires persistence; the best advice I can give is to persist in studying Arabic and attack your weakness. Arabic is a rich language, so patience is necessary. It is important to realize that studying Arabic is not something that one simply completes, it is better described as a continuous activity.
Other advice: Befriend native speakers and actually use the language. A language is meant to be spoken, so do not only read and write but interact with people because this is the best way to improve your language skills.
Congratulations to Barrett on his academic achievements! We are honored to have played role in his linguistic development, and we look forward to seeing more great things from him in the future.