There is no "P" sound in Arabic, so "pizza" is pronounced "bizza" in its Tunisian dialect. Despite the difference in language, "bizza" and a Tunisian shop owner were all it took to bring confidence to Montana State University student Shannon Collaer and a handful of other university students studying abroad on a language scholarship.
Their experience in the shop was the students' first exposure to the Arabic language in its native setting, and Collaer said it had the power to assure a handful of travel-weary, hungry, culture-shocked language students that they were indeed in the right place and could tackle the learning before them.
"There (were) seven of us in this tiny pizza shop," said Collaer, who studied Arabic in Tunisia as a Critical Language Scholar. "It had been a traumatic sort of experience just getting to Tunisia, (and then) we were hungry and tired and all we wanted was food, but we couldn't read the ingredients on the menu."
Last year, Collaer, who is from Idaho Falls, Idaho, was one of nearly 600 U.S. students to receive the scholarship, which is sponsored by the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs in order to increase the number of U.S. students studying critical foreign languages, as well as to promote mutual understanding and respect between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. Approximately 5,000 students applied for the award.
Collaer remained in Tunisia for two months, studying Arabic and living with a Tunisian family.
"(The family is) so eager to help, amazingly generous, and generally welcoming, which is so nice when I am halfway around the world from home," Collaer said in an email interview from Tunis.
She said the language was rich in complexity, and that the Tunisians with whom she spoke seemed happy to be communicating with the students in their dialect.
They were also intrigued by her appearance, she added. Collaer said women and children regularly touched her red hair, and children tried to rub the freckles off of her face.
Collaer, a history major, first heard about the scholarship in her Arabic class at MSU.
"Arabic is such a wonderfully complex and poetic language, and the opportunity to learn it from native speakers in an immersive environment fits perfectly with my keen interest in travel and entrancement with the culture and people of the Middle East," she said.
MSU was instrumental in her journey, she added. In fact, none of the other colleges she considered attending even had an Arabic program.
"Had I gone anywhere else, I wouldn't be in Tunis today," Collaer said.
While it was Collaer's Arabic class that got her interested in the language, it was her involvement in MSU's Model Arab League debate team that led to her desire to make a difference in the lives of Middle Eastern women.
"Through this team I learned so much about the incredibly complex and rich history, the
dizzying politics, and the unique cultural nuances that make the Middle East fascinating, both as a student and as a traveler in the area," Collaer said.
The debate team coach, Thomas Goltz, characterized Collaer as an individual with great potential.
"Shannon walked into my Model Arab League class a timid greenhorn and walked out an award-winning professional," said Goltz, coach of the MSU team that took regional honors in Salt Lake City and then later at the national competition, held last spring in Washington D.C. "It was an honor and pleasure to have her in the class, and to help her go to the places where she is going--meaning, to the top."
In the future, Collaer plans to participate in NGO non-profit humanitarian organizations. She thinks that it's important for young people to participate in such outreach.
She also hopes to work for a government agency that improves relations with Arabic-speaking countries.
For now, Collaer is simply grateful for the experiences she has had as a university student.
And she will always remember that first day in Tunisia, when a pizza shop owner made her and her fellow students feel welcome--and well fed.
Collaer recalled that the owner of the pizza shop came out to help the group read the menu, but when words failed to convey meaning, he didn't give up. Instead, he led them back into his kitchen, allowing them to choose ingredients for, and then make, their own pizzas.
While the students were eating, the shop owner came out and began writing down words for the students so they could make the connection between what they had eaten and the language.
"Right then we knew that we were going to be okay, and that we could do this," Collaer said.