Nathan Deshazer chose to study Arabic in college only after much prayer and careful consideration.
The Indiana University sophomore, who pairs a Near Eastern languages and cultures minor with a pre-medicine major, hopes to use his knowledge of Arabic to enable future missionary work in the Middle East.
Deshazer and his fellow classmates have contributed to the steep enrollment increase in Middle Eastern studies programs nationwide.
The Modern Language Association's 2009 survey found that during the previous three years, the number of students studying Arabic grew by 44 percent. Enrollment in other language programs also increased, though not as rapidly as Arabic studies. Some students intend to use their degrees to pursue careers in government or international business, but others just want to improve their understanding of a culture very different from their own.
Deshazer took a year off after high school to serve as a missionary in Costa Rica but felt the call to pursue preparation for missionary work in the Middle East: "I'd been praying about it for a while, and part way through the year, I just knew that's what I had to do."
He recognizes the value in learning the language before traveling abroad as a missionary, and to be effective, he must understand the culture, Deshazer said.
Immediately after 9/11, some professors wondered whether students who were all aspiring CIA agents drove the enrollment increase. Instead, they discovered that students genuinely wanted to learn, understand and communicate with a different cultural group, said Kristen Brustad, chair of the Middle Eastern studies department at the University of Texas at Austin.
Katy Hamill, a senior at UT with double-majors in Middle Eastern studies and international relations and global studies with a minor in Turkish, cannot pinpoint what initially drew her to the program. But the Middle Eastern region sparked her interest at a young age, and she remains fascinated.
"It's the history of that region that interests me more than anything because it's the cradle of civilization," she said. "There's just such a rich cultural history in that area."
UT's Middle Eastern studies program curriculum emphasizes Arabic, religion courses covering Islam and the Quran, history, literature and popular culture. After graduation, students pursue a variety of career paths, including international work for governmental and non-governmental agencies, translation and academia.
Hamill is considering performing diplomatic work while obtaining her Master's degree in global policy.
"In a broad sense, I'm hoping I can do something that will bring a little bit more cultural understanding and cross cultural communication with the Muslim world," she said.
Hamill participated in a faculty-led program in Turkey this past summer, which deepened her knowledge and interest in the region even more. She is confident that her experience with languages will enrich her professional opportunities for the future.
The Middle East Studies Association, housed at Arizona State University, promotes research and connects Middle Eastern scholars around the world. Amy Newhall, executive director and faculty member in the department of Middle Eastern/North African studies at ASU, thinks this interest in world culture is important in terms of global connectedness.
"I think people are really interested in this world where boundaries, the old frontiers, are so much more sparse," Newhall said. "We're connected in so many more ways."
Newhall acknowledges students' immense curiosity as they seek to understand this "great flow of information" among cultures: "I think they're encouraged to think more expansively."
Exposure to world cultures can minimize levels of fearfulness and discourage "small" thinking, Hamill said.
"The more you learn about other cultures, the less you subscribe to certain ideas of ethnocentrism that tends to drive prejudice and cultural bias in a way that can be really divisive," she said. "It's going to just broaden your worldview in a way that you don't even know until it's happening."