Across the country The University of Texas at Austin is known for many things. When asked most people say something about the 49,000-plus student body, highly respected business, law and public affairs schools or the national championship winning football team. However, unknown to many, over the last 56 years the university has established one of the largest and most respected programs for Middle Eastern studies in the United States.
After being in Austin only a few years Dr. Mahmoud Al-Batal, director of the university's Arabic Flagship Program and associate professor of Arabic, has adopted a native Texan's sense of pride when talking about the university, and why shouldn't he? His experience and skills teaching the Arabic language have led to the university's establishment of a national flagship program in Arabic that makes it one of the top institutions for Arabic studies in the United States.
The university features the largest regular and tenured faculty dedicated to Arabic studies in the country. This year, the National Security Education Program awarded the university more than $700,000 to establish the Arabic Flagship Program to increase the number of graduates with a proficiency in Arabic.
Al-Batal has made instructing students in Arabic his life's work. He has taught across the country and around the world and written books and articles on the teaching of Arabic. When the opportunity came to teach at the university he felt the chance had finally come to affect his field and the world.
There are 20 students in the graduate program. The goal of the program is to have 30 students at the graduate level and 300 in the undergraduate program. The federal government requires about 700 proficient Arabic speakers to meet its needs and has designated Arabic as a critically needed language.
"Government agencies, universities and many private companies are eager for fluent Arabic speakers," Al-Batal said. "Not only will students learn about a rich culture and language, but they will open the door to numerous opportunities after graduation."
The university's Center for Arabic Study Abroad is the nation's premier study abroad program for Arabic students.
As part of the flagship program, undergraduate students from disciplines such as business, economics, psychology and film will learn the language, participate in cultural activities and study abroad in an intensive year-long program in an Arab-speaking country.
"The flagship program provides the student with a well-rounded education of the Middle East and gives them the linguistic, cultural and communication skills to go to travel to the Arab world and interact with people and be involved in business and trade," Al-Batal said.
Al-Batal hopes this program will open the eyes of Texans and students to parts of the world and cultures that have not been portrayed positively.
"We hope," he said, "that Americans and Texans learn to appreciate their own language and their horizons of cultural understand can rise.
"Our social and political conscious is developed in college, so it is our responsibility as educators to make other languages and cultures available for study. We need to put out the message that students at all levels need to learn about the people who share this world, because their suffering will eventually be your suffering, their injustice will mean your injustice and their happiness will ultimately be your happiness. In the world we are connected in many ways."