If higher education were to be judged solely by the amount of whiteboard space used on a given day, Ilham Ashour's Arabic Language II class at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay would give the folks at Massachusetts Institute of Technology a run for their money.
Nevermind that it's challenging just to write a string of telephone numbers from right to left in Arabic. But if you can't remember your own campus digits — which at least one student at the board struggled to do Wednesday night — well, it ratchets up the difficulty.
"You'll see some people and they'll say, 'What is that, some crazy elvish you're writing?' Um, no," student Blaine Gibson, 18, said with a laugh.
Beyond hands-on classroom instruction, Ashour said it takes pioneering students to realize that Arabic is a language that can't be mastered through mere coursework. And while the "practice makes perfect" tenet is true of most languages, having so few outlets to do that in Green Bay means it's up to students to grab the torch and make it happen.
So the students have become ambassadors for Arabic Day, an event on Tuesday at UWGB where community members can have their names written in Arabic script, learn about Middle Eastern and North African customs, enjoy falafel or drink Turkish coffee and snap pictures in a traditional Bedouin setting. Multimedia presentations showcase Arabic cultures through dancing, singing and art.
"Every country has its good and bad. So when learning about the language, it's not just the alphabet. It's the history, the religion, the culture, the art, everything goes together," said Ashour, who is originally from Israel. "We want to help show the other side of Arabs. The side not shown on the news."
The six students (there's 10 enrolled) at Wednesday night's class were almost unanimous in finding that the language evokes a negative connotation with the public. Based on what's happening — and has happened — in the larger geo-political picture, that shouldn't come as a surprise, said Nichole Sotiropoulos, 22, of Green Bay.
"People's reactions to hearing you're learning Arabic, well, it's not very friendly," she said. "So I think that makes it even more important for us to open others to another culture."
Sotiropoulos is in a unique position considering she lived in Egypt between the ages of 5 and 10. At that time, she didn't immerse herself in the culture — "I spoke a few basic words. Badly." — but she'd like to one day return and carry on rich conversations, not just be a tourist.
"I didn't speak Arabic while I was there, which is kind of why I wanted to learn now," Sotiropoulos said. "It's why I was really excited to find out they had it here so I could finally learn."
While the idea of bridging gaps through foreign languages might seem to be a cliché now, there's real interest bubbling up in Ashour's class.
To conduct business in Arabic. To someday travel to the Middle East. To enhance understanding about art, music and politics through Middle Eastern history — it's all part of an ongoing discussion that extends outside the classroom walls.
"People generally like it when you attempt to learn their language," said Ben Libal, 18.
Libal's entrepreneurial spirit led him to the class so it would be an additional skill to carry him in a future career — and even better, pad his bank account. Though he can "read with comprehension at the level of a 3-year-old," he's found that some are impressed that he's at least willing to give it a chance.
Likewise, Anthony Hillier said when deciding on a foreign language, he wanted, "to learn something that was the complete opposite of English." Through the class, Hillier and his peers determined building blocks were in place for an Arabic Club on campus, which then led to the idea for a day to promote Middle Eastern culture.
"We've only been given a basic understanding and history of some of the countries, but we're learning more on our own," said Hillier, 22, a history major from Pulaski. "We're hoping (Arabic Day) might be a spark-the-match kind of thing for others."
Having taught previously in Israel, Ashour said it'd be nice to see Arabic classes filter to the high-school level in America so students can learn fundamentals early. Businesses and newly enlisted military members also would be wise to take greater initiative with the language so they'll not only thrive, but negate misunderstanding when traveling overseas, she said.
"We have a lot in our culture that promotes friendship. We want to share our knowledge and try to bridge the gaps," Ashour said. "But there has to be more knowledge of who we are as Arabs. Our tradition. Our culture. That yes, you are welcome in our house."