Michael Marcell has spent time with one of the most powerful women in the world. He hears more than a dozen languages on a daily basis, and he has befriended an unlikely, yet inspiring, person.
And he's still a college student.
Marcell, a senior at Western Kentucky University, is studying in Dubai this semester, an experience that has changed his outlook and introduced him to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. In fact, WKU's Arabic program is growing as more students become interested in the language.
"I hope more students will explore studying abroad in the Middle East," said Marcell, of Louisville. "Academically, it's huge … a lot (of students) have never traveled anywhere, which is sad."
Marcell came to college about four years ago after serving in the military. After high school, he didn't want to attend college, so he decided the military was the best option. He wanted adventure, and he wanted to do something respectable - so he joined the U.S. Marine Corps.
When he decided to enter college, he was already an experienced traveler and was interested in the Arabic language after serving in Iraq in 2004. That's when he planned a study abroad trip to Dubai, where he is staying at the American University until May. He is studying international affairs, international business, Arabic and journalism.
"There's almost 20 languages you can hear from walking from one end of the campus to the other," he said. "I've never been at such a diverse school."
While in Dubai, Marcell and other students were affiliated with a television show, which interviewed Clinton.
"If you ever wanted to learn how to handle yourself in public, watch her," he said. "If I ever have a daughter and she ends up half as graceful as Hillary Clinton, I'll be impressed."
It's experiences like those that attract students to WKU's Arabic program. The number of students taking Arabic classes has doubled since last year, and professors are adding more courses to the program.
Students previously could take only beginner Arabic courses, but the program recently added more advanced courses. Several students who are studying religion and many ROTC students enroll in the Arabic program, said Laura McGee, interim head of modern languages.
"They want to be prepared for the situations they're going into. They know they are very dependent on interpreters," she said. "But they also want to have language skills to feel safe and more confident when they're in other countries."
Last year, a Fulbright language teacher from Oman taught some courses. This year, two instructors from Libya and Jordan are lending a hand at WKU, McGee said.
"What we know from employers is employers are very interested in adding a variety of languages to their work force," she said. "And students who know the language have a greater appreciation for cultural diversity."
That's definitely the case for Marcell, who has seen two sides of the Middle East as a soldier and now as a civilian. The program has allowed him to further expand his cultural knowledge and language skills - he recently snagged an internship from a corporate communications company in Dubai and hopes to land a job there or with another Arab company after graduating.
But it's the people he has met who have shaped his experience - one person in particular. Not long after arriving in Dubai, he met Haneen Assaf, a Muslim woman who lived in Iraq at the height of the war in Iraq. At that time, Marcell was also in Iraq, serving in the military.
Marcell helped supply and train Iraqi soldiers to fight for themselves, but Assaf had a different experience. She constantly lived in fear. Her father had been killed in the Gulf War, and many friends and acquaintances were killed in Iraq. She vividly recalls a day when her principal informed her and her classmates that there was an undetonated bomb near the building and they were all close to death, Marcell said.
"Despite all this … every day, at her insistence, she teaches me Arabic for at least an hour. She doesn't hold any grudges against me," he said.
It's one of the most enduring, enlightening relationships for Marcell and it has become one of the highlights of his trip.
"I never expected coming out of the Marines I would meet somebody on the other side that, if the circumstances had been different, I could've hurt," he said.
His time in the Middle East and his relationship with Assaf have broadened his views of religion. Even though Assaf has nightmares about guns and soldiers, she turns to her religion to cope with her losses. Like Christians, she relies on her beliefs to give her strength, Marcell said.
"In America, Islam is a buzz word," he said. "But for her, it's a different experience."
If there's one message he would send, he would encourage others to visit the Middle East and let go of prejudices against the region.
"There's no evil here. There's no bogeyman waiting to get people," he said. "People shouldn't be afraid of this part of the world."