Fifteen high school students from across the United States will travel to Jordan this summer for two months of intensive language instruction and cross-cultural learning under the auspices of the "Journey to Jordan" initiative organized by the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
It is the fourth consecutive year UW-Green Bay will offer the program through a grant from the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. This year's grant is $138,000.
Jay Harris, a UW-Green Bay staff member who coordinates "Journey to Jordan," points to Barack Obama's much-anticipated "Muslim world" speech in Cairo, Egypt on June 4 — in which the president is expected to convey interest in improving relations with Arabs in the Middle East and with Muslims worldwide — as evidence of the program's timeliness.
"Our program is very much a direct extension of U.S. foreign policy," Harris says.
The program is funded through money allocated by Congress to the National Security Language Initiative. The goal is to increase the number of Americans learning foreign languages in order to better engage foreign governments and peoples, especially in critical regions, and to encourage reform, promote understanding, convey respect for other cultures and provide others an opportunity to learn more about America and its citizens.
Teenagers from thirteen states were selected for the summer 2009 trip on the basis of academic performance, personal essays describing their interest in cross-cultural learning and Arabic, letters of recommendation from teachers and community leaders, and telephone interviews. (See list of student participants below.)
The "Journey to Jordan" program begins and ends in Washington, D.C., including briefings at the State Department and the Embassy of Jordan, meetings with Middle East experts, non-governmental organizations active in the region, presentations on using Arabic in careers, and tours of national monuments and museums. The program was first conducted in summer 2006 for 14 students with a pilot grant from the State Department.
"State liked what we did then," says Harris. "As a result, our proposal for twenty students was selected in 2007 over several major competitors on the national scene, then for twenty-five students in 2008. We had to compete for it once again and won, but as with everything this year, the funding has been reduced."
In addition to Arabic language study at the University of Jordan, the program includes service learning projects, three-week home stays with Jordanian host families, and field trips to places like the ancient city of Petra, the Wadi Rum Desert, and the Dead Sea.
Harris observes that "most Jordanians welcome Americans warmly and are able to differentiate between governments and their policies, and people who are there to share and learn. The fact that we are there with sincere interest means a great deal to them." The young ambassadors are briefed on topics they will find themselves listening and responding to in Jordan, including the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict.
"This program is not about politics," says Harris, "but Jordanians are keenly aware of global and regional issues and they want to discuss them."
At the end of the summer program, the student participants will receive additional Arabic training through online exercises and resources provided to them. "We also like to keep them informed about other opportunities, things like scholarships and special conferences, especially after they have been empowered by this experience."
Harris finds that program alumni often commit themselves to academic pursuits in Middle East studies, Arabic language and international relations. "Many of them aspire to careers in diplomacy, commerce, development programs, and other work that can keep them active and contributing in the region." One alum wrote to Harris recently to say that "the Journey to Jordan program was the impetus for my determination to continue seizing opportunities so that someday I can be a part of the peace process in the Middle East."
Harris noted that the program has led to a number of spin-offs, including enhanced visibility among Arab-American communities and organizations, education associations, and at the State Department and on Capitol Hill. "We are on some important radar screens, both here and in Jordan. UW-Green Bay is as well-known there as some of the most prestigious universities in the U.S. We have many good friends and supporters who respect and appreciate our efforts for mutual understanding."
For more on the program, visit www.uwgb.edu/intlprojects/jordan.htm.