Amber Tracy spent the past academic year studying Arabic. But with a full-time job and other classes, she wasn't progressing as quickly as she had wanted.
On June 23, she began an intensive Arabic program at Cal State San Bernardino, learning Arabic all day and practicing it in residence halls well into the night.
"I think I've learned more in the last week than I did all last semester," Tracy said after finishing a lunch of Arab-style chicken, rice and salad with her tutors and other students. "Being able to focus on Arabic and not think about anything else is really an amazing opportunity."
Tracy is one of 46 students in the six-week program, one of only a few Arabic residential immersion courses nationwide.
All but one of the students live in university housing, where they practice with fellow pupils and with tutors -- some of whom also live in the residence halls -- and other fluent Arabic speakers.
They sign a pledge to only speak Arabic to the best of their ability. The students also learn about Arab culture.
Most of the students either had not studied Arabic before they began the program or only had one or two quarters or semesters of the language, said Dany Doueiri, coordinator of the program.
Several have one or two Arabic-speaking parents and speak a colloquial version of the language and want to learn how to speak, read and write classical Arabic.
Cal State San Bernardino has become the leading Cal State campus for Middle Eastern language and cultural courses.
First in Cal State System
The Arabic immersion program, which began last year, is the only one in the 23-campus system and attracts students from around the state.
In 2005, the university established the system's first Center for Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies.
The immersion program is in part funded by the federal government, which in 2006 began its Strategic Language Initiative to increase learning of Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Farsi and other languages that the government views as "critical-need."
Broadening learning of the languages promotes cultural understanding, allows the government to better monitor possible terrorist activity and helps U.S. business, said Eileen Lainez, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department, in an e-mail.
The Defense Department is one of the agencies participating in the initiative.
Tracy, 23, an international-relations major at Cal State Sacramento, said she wants to one day work at a U.S. embassy in the Middle East.
"I think it's important to have people who understand Arab culture make policy, make agreements and breach misunderstandings," she said.
In addition to learning Arabic, students take field trips to Arab markets in Anaheim, coffeehouses near San Diego, and other places where they can interact with immigrants from Arabic-speaking countries.
They learn Arab dancing, drink Arab coffee, hear Arab poetry and visit Arab churches and mosques. Tutors and instructors are of Arab ancestry.
Brian Baker, 22, of Beaumont, said the interaction counters the negative stereotypes many Americans have of Arabs.
"We're ingrained with certain images of the Middle East and Arab culture since we're young," said Baker, who studied Middle Eastern history at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. "Learning the history of the Middle East and being in this class shows the truth of the culture and weeds out the negative things we're told."
Baker has an interest in the Middle East in part because of his Christian faith. He wants to find out more about the birthplace of Christianity and about the links among Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
He plans to participate in the second part of the immersion program next summer.
Students will travel to Amman, Jordan, to learn more Arabic and practice the language while working at nonprofits, businesses and government agencies. Sixteen students from last year's San Bernardino program are now in Jordan.
As Baker practiced his calligraphy on a recent afternoon, Doueiri walked around a language lab helping students.
Jacob Yousif, of San Bernardino, had the word "muhandis," or engineer, on his computer screen and asked Doueiri for help pronouncing it.
Yousif, 18, is the son of Iraqi immigrants. They wanted to teach him Arabic when he was 10 years old, but Yousif wasn't interested. Now he is.
He is starting studies in international business this fall at Cal State San Bernardino and believes Arabic will be helpful in future jobs.
He also wants to communicate better with relatives.
Rhonda Saleh, 22, learned colloquial Arabic from her Lebanese parents but struggles to grasp the full meaning of the Quran and other written works, which are in classical Arabic.
The Highland woman wants to pass on the language and Lebanese cultural traditions to the children she plans to have one day.
"Even though I'm American and I love American culture and I'm a part of it, I want them to be exposed to (Lebanese) culture as well," she said. "It's important for them to know who they are."