The Middle East is around 6,000 miles away, on the other side of the world, but the multinational subcontinent influences and impacts American politics and foreign policy as if it were as close as Canada or Mexico.
The United States has been a predominant force—covertly and overtly—in the region since the end of World War II.
In the summer of 1965, Penn established a center in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to study the modern Middle East, and add a contemporary component to the University's programs in ancient and medieval studies of the area.
Today, that epicenter, the Middle East Center (MEC), is a meeting point and melting pot of different disciplines, departments, and scholars who facilitate learning and research about the region.
Located on the second floor of Fisher-Bennett Hall, the MEC is a National Resource Center supported by the U.S. Department of Education. It is tasked with providing relevant courses about the Middle East and North Africa, resources for research, and instituting teacher trainings that provide a "keen understanding of the culture, history, politics, and economics" of the region.
Since May, Amelia Carter has served as program coordinator of the Middle East Center, and is responsible for coordinating the MEC's academic events, and creating and administrating outreach programs for students, educators, and the public at large.
Carter, a Philadelphia native, received her bachelor's degree in geography and urban studies from Temple University, and her MLA with graduate certificates in gender and sexuality studies and global studies from Penn.
She says she was interested in working at the MEC because it gives her "an opportunity to use every element" of her education.
"I do a lot of community work in Germantown, where I live, so I've always had a long-held passion for doing outreach and activism work," she says. "Through the [Middle East Center], I can do that work in a different way, in a way that focuses on education. I think it's especially important in today's world, where the Middle East has really taken center stage in the imaginations of the American public."
The Current sat down with Carter in Fisher-Bennett Hall to discuss the Middle East Center, its work with the community, and how it helps to provide a "keen understanding" of the Middle East.
Q: What are some of your responsibilities as program coordinator of the Middle East Center?
A: I coordinate the academic events and coordinate outreach efforts. We have a full roster of events this fall and spring, and the goal is to create a platform for students, faculty members, and the public to learn about different scholars, activists, and artists who focus their work on the Middle East and North Africa. It's very academic-focused because that is our mission, but we also try to acknowledge the richness of information on the region across disciplines. I think that is the best way to engage people who don't yet have an academic focus on the area, and to get them to start thinking about the Middle East and North Africa. These activities include academic events, like lectures from scholars that we bring in from leading institutions from around the U.S., sometimes internationally. This year, in particular, we're trying to push the envelope on topics that we cover and include more things like film screenings with an academic proponent so that people have both the knowledge and also an easier entryway into the conversation, as well as higher level, intensely academic talks where a scholar engages deeply with their specialty area.
Q: What sort of outreach programs do you offer and administer?
A: We work with K-12 schools, community colleges, and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to help promote Middle Eastern and North African area studies in those institutions. Our main program right now is called the Speakers Bureau. This program allows us to send both faculty members and advanced Ph.D. students who are focusing on the region to K-14 institutions to give lectures based on the needs of the
classroom. We cover the cost of everything, which allows our often-underserved schools access to free quality resources to bring to their classroom. With the community colleges and HBCUs, in particular, our programming tends to be more developed, and includes not only academic lectures and cultural performances, but also curriculum development and panels or lecture series.
Q: You worked in the Office of Student Affairs at Penn before joining the Middle East Center. Why were you interested in working at the MEC?
A: I've been fortunate to be able to work with the South Asia Center as the program coordinator for theirC.U. in India trip. It's a yearlong course where [students] take a two-week trip to India. Through working with that center, I became aware of the national resource centers, which are the South Asia Center, theEast Asian Studies Center, and the Middle East Center. Once that was on my radar, I realized that this was definitely work I wanted to get involved in. Through this position, I am able to be creative with who we bring to the Penn community and how Penn does outreach to the Philadelphia community. I think that it is really, really important that there is good information out there about the Middle East that is thorough, thoughtful, and honest. Helping to promote that is a great privilege.
Q: Do elementary, middle, or high schools in the area teach students about the Middle East, aside from the ongoing wars?
A: I'm still new to the position, but from what I've been able to gather, it's definitely still something that's lacking in our schools. But there is a big push right now to become more global, to have a more global education. Also, just living in this globalized world, people know and feel that [a global education] is important and that we need to become more aware of the world around us. There definitely has been more of a push to try to incorporate area studies in curriculums, but I think it's very hard for K-12 teachers—especially those who are working in public schools and underfunded charter schools—to have the resources to engage the subject well, which is why it is so important that people become more aware of the Middle East Center, and the other centers at Penn, so they can utilize us more.
Q: You offer free teacher trainings and professional development services for K-12 teachers. Do teachers come with any knowledge of the Middle East?
A: From the two teacher trainings that I was a part of, the teachers who typically come are the teachers who are hungry for this information. They are the teachers who are trying their best to bring that perspective into their classrooms, and they are actively seeking out new information, or trying to polish their information. It really is great working with people who want information and really believe in the subject matter, and the importance of the subject matter in the classroom. I think it would be wonderful to have access to more teachers who would never think about including that global perspective in their classrooms because there are so many ways to include a global perspective in your classroom, even if you're teaching math, even if you're teaching science. I think that is an area that we would like to expand on, that outreach effort to get to the people who would never even consider coming to one of our teacher trainings.
Q: Where does Israel fall within the purview of the Middle East Center?
A: Israel is in the Middle East so we definitely include it, along with more than 40 other countries in the region. This year, MEC's translation contest is focused on Modern Hebrew and we're working closely with our affiliated faculty members who specialize in Hebrew to implement the contest. We also support the Israeli Film Festival and events throughout the year that relate to Israel in partnership with Jewish and/or Israeli studies departments, centers, or groups across campus. At the Middle East Center, our main goal is to promote scholarship around the dozens of countries found in the Middle East and North Africa by enabling an academic space to explore and understand the region's diverse perspectives on culture, history, and politics.
Q: While you were an undergraduate student at Temple, you traveled to Northeast India and Cambodia to work with child advocacy organizations. How was the experience?
A: It was good. It was definitely a really incredible learning experience, and helped to develop my perspective on where I wanted the rest of my career path to go, and how I thought about and talked about social issues, both here and abroad. I lived in India for a total of eight months and it was by far one of the best experiences I've had in my life.
Q: Why was it so enjoyable?
A: The friendships and personal connections I was able to make there were incredibly enriching and healing in so many ways. It's just a very different culture. There are so many cultures even within 'Indian culture,' so just experiencing that intense diversity and being able to feel a piece of the complexity and beauty in each difference that you find was spectacular.