Jiro Oka is a 19-year-old Pomona college student who speaks French and English, but he believes learning Persian is a good idea if it will help him land a job as a diplomat for the U.S. State Department.
The federal government thinks learning Persian is strategically important too. That's why the government's Strategic Language Initiative gave Cal State San Bernardino nearly $195,000 in grant money to offer a five-week summer course in Persian for Oka and 23 other college students from across Southern California.
The grant will pay all but about $350 of the $3,500 fee each of the students would have to pay to live on campus and study the language. Classes started June 27, with each student having pledged to continue studying Persian for at least 15 months.
Persian is the predominant language in Iran and is also spoken in a number of central Asian countries, including Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As many as 1,500 students have been taught Arabic at Cal State San Bernardino over the past 10 years. About 30 percent of those students have already landed jobs in which they use the language, according to Dany Doueiri, coordinator of the university's summer language program.
Others have used it as leverage to get jobs in fields such as nursing, where they can serve as interpreters for some patients, he said.
The university stepped in this summer when impending budget cuts prompted Cal State Fullerton to scrap its Persian language program, one of only four Persian programs offered at Southern California colleges. The others are at UC Santa Barbara, UCLA and a summer-only program at San Diego State, Doueiri said.
Teaching Persian and other strategic languages "is important for our nation," he said, "and I'm not talking only from a military point of view. I'm talking about business, culture and for nonprofits.
"To give you an example," Doueiri said, "when we went to war in Afghanistan there was only one student in the entire United States at the university level who was learning Pashto, the language spoken in Afghanistan. How could you go to war with a country when you can't even speak the language?"
Business leaders are not filling some overseas jobs with American applicants, he said, because they can't find students who speak the language.
The summer program is Oka's first attempt at learning Persian.
"French is easy. Spanish is easy. But Persian is harder," he said. "The characters are different. The alphabet is different. It reads from right to left."
Once he catches on, Oka said, "I expect it to get a little bit easier."
So far, only about four or five of the Persian students are enrolled year-around at Cal State San Bernardino, Doueiri said, but the number could increase if the university continues to offer the language.
"I'm hopeful that will happen," he said.