The 14 state-owned universities will soon introduce a new way of offering academic programs with the introduction of an Arabic language and culture major.
Faculty at California University of Pennsylvania will teach the courses, but students throughout the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education will be able to take the courses online.
Students at the other campuses will be able to take additional courses on their home campuses as needed.
System officials say the approach will ensure there are enough students to take an Arabic major. And this is an example of the State System's plans to operate more like a system rather than a collection of individual universities.
Soon, other schools will offer majors in a similar mix of Web- and campus-based courses: East Stroudsburg University will announce a major in Chinese, and Kutztown University will offer one in German. Other fields are expected to follow.
"Working together and recognizing the expertise of the multiple universities often provide better opportunities for students than any one single university," said Jim Moran, the system's vice chancellor for academic and student affairs.
Without this type of collaboration, it's unlikely any of the state universities could draw enough students to offer the advanced courses in Arabic language and culture that are needed for a major.
Using this method, all it takes is two or three students at each of the 14 campuses, and "that's more than most foreign language programs have," said John Cencich, a professor at California University of Pennsylvania.
Arabic interpreters are in high demand by federal government agencies for diplomatic, defense and intelligence-gathering purposes.
It's important to national security that some Americans learn the language, because the federal government only allows U.S. citizens to gain clearance to interpret classified information in the Arabic language, Cencich said.
But the program also is expected to draw interest from students curious about this culture as well as children from Arab-American families who want to learn the language of their home country.
In Arab-American communities, "parents encourage their children to learn the language because perhaps they are traveling back home and working in a business area, they want their kids to be able to communicate in their home country, be literate and, say, be able to read the newspaper," said Odeese Khalil, who developed the online Arabic courses.
Arabic ranked as the eighth-most-studied language at American colleges and universities in a 2009 survey by the Modern Language Association of America, jumping up two spots from the last survey it had conducted, in 2002.
The university expects 30 students to enroll in the program next year based on interest surveys, and anticipates that swelling to 94 students by the fifth year.
One of those who plans to enroll in the advanced online Arabic courses is Charisse Varga, a California University junior modern language and Spanish major from Westmoreland County.
Varga became fascinated with Arabic after listening to a conversation between her friend and mother who moved to America from Saudi Arabia.
"I think that inspired me because it was real in that moment. The interaction between them, it was so beautiful," said Varga, who aspires to become an interpreter.
She already has taken the introductory and intermediate course in Arabic offered at California, and part of one of the courses was given through online instruction. She found that offered advantages to a face-to-face class with the instructor.
"It's a really good option to have. You can turn the volume up and repeat things," Varga said.