The four met at different points in their college career, but their conversation flows with ease. It gets serious when they talk about their love of the Arabic language and lighthearted with the banter that only a tight-knit group can have.
In part, it's because they all share a common bond. They're the first four McDaniel students to graduate with a degree in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies, a major with both a linguistic and a cultural track that was approved in spring 2011 and began that fall.
For all four — Eric Spioch, of Westminster; Emily Schaefer, of Hampstead; Eddie Blankenship, of Taneytown; and A'rikka Kimbrough, of Baltimore — their fascination with the language wasn't anticipated. They didn't go to McDaniel College knowing they'd come out the other side proficient in Arabic and with a deep love of its rules and its alphabet, its verb patterns and its words.
"I fell into the Middle East, and I have not been able to get out," Schaefer said, and the others agreed.
Arabic is one of the most spoken languages in the world, but it's not easy to learn, Carol Zaru, coordinator of the Arabic and Middle Eastern studies program, said.
It consists of an entirely different alphabet. It's read from right to left. There's standard Arabic and conversational dialects, which are virtually different languages.
"It's so complex," Schaefer said.
"It is," Blankenship responded. "Many times it's very much a love/hate relationship. Arabic has brought me so many frustrating moments in my life, but it's also brought me a lot of joy."
They've foiled the frustrations of learning a new language and culture at home and abroad: Blankenship and Schaefer in different intensive programs in Jordan last spring; Spioch while studying abroad that same year in Cairo, witnessing the one-year anniversary of the Egyptian revolution and a presidential campaign; and Kimbrough as a research intern at a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit called United Palestinian Appeal.
"I think the learning curve with Arabic is kind of an exponential thing," Blankenship said. "It gets easier the further you go along."
"I think Eddie is the anomaly and likes grammar too much," Schaefer said jokingly.
For all four students, it wasn't the second language they'd learned, presenting a set of problems of its own. Like when Spioch said he and Schaefer would accidentally start speaking to each other in Spanish during basic Arabic classes. Now, that complication has reversed itself.
"Now I have problems where I try and speak Spanish, I flip into Arabic," Spioch said, "so that's always a challenge to keep everything straight in your mind."
Yet, there's a fulfillment that comes with being able to speak the language and read its words, Zaru said.
"When they find that they can actually learn it and they get to appreciate it and enjoy it," she said, "it gives them a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment."
It aligns with other Middle East studies classes that were already taught at the college, and students in the major can take those courses, such as in the history, sociology, music and other departments, Zaru said. And it pertains to the real world that the four entered Saturday as graduates of McDaniel's class of 2013.
"I think it opens a lot of doors for them in terms of employment because it's a language that's really sought after now," Zaru said. "It's in demand more and more now in the United States and around the world."
And they're each planning on utilizing the major — just in different ways.
Blankenship — who is fluent in four languages and has taught himself several others — will be working toward a master's in Islamic Studies at Harvard starting this fall.
Spioch will be studying Arabic for two months in Morocco this summer as a part of the U.S. State Department's Critical Language Scholarship Program.
Schaefer will start looking for work where she can use her Arabic and then plans to attend graduate school with several years of employment under her belt.
Kimbrough is taking the year off and applying to graduate schools where she plans to pursue Arabic.
But graduation, it's bittersweet, they said.
"It'll be sad not having Arabic classes anymore," Schaefer said.
"And not seeing you guys," Blakenship chimed in.