- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2006

Lauren Edwards says she couldn’t speak “a lick” of Arabic six weeks ago and her thoughts on the Middle East had been shaped primarily by images of war and protesting she had seen on television news.

But the Howard University sophomore yesterday stood onstage with several classmates, a long black hijab covering her hair, and performed in a skit to demonstrate her newfound knowledge of the culture.

“Belly dancing is actually a very spiritual dance; it’s not a promiscuous dance as we see it,” said Miss Edwards, 22, of Northwest.

Miss Edwards was one of 69 students who graduated yesterday from JACKS, Howard’s six-week, foreign-language program that promotes interest in less commonly taught languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Swahili.

The program is part of a $1 million Department of Defense contract with the university that also includes teaching cultural awareness to National Guard troops before deployment.

Lt. Col. Jeremy Martin, an agency spokesman, said the program follows President Bush’s call for more foreign-language learning in the United States and is part of the agency’s ongoing minority outreach.

Howard competed among several historically black colleges and universities to win the contract.

“It’s a global marketplace,” Col. Martin said. “So the country needs to have an available pool of language professionals to support the nation’s interest in a variety of areas, whether that’s defense, commerce, diplomacy or to assist with humanitarian support.”

The program was open to high school and college students. It offered them a $1,000 stipend and 150 hours of language instruction, equal to a year of high-school instruction or a one-semester college course.

There were no textbooks and only minimal reading and writing instruction. Students instead took trips to embassies and used visual aides such as pictures of food with the Swahili word underneath. They also participated in such physical activities as tai chi to immerse themselves in the cultures and to learn “survival” language skills such as how to order from a menu or get home if plopped in the middle of a foreign country.

Graduation was contingent upon a verbal-proficiency test in which the students had to hold a basic conversation in the foreign language they studied. All 69 students completed the program.

“I went from having no Chinese to learning a lot in a short time, and I had fun doing it, which was a surprise,” said Oakridge (N.C.) Military Academy graduate Steve Bueker, 19, of Potomac.

Classmate, Dante Gregory, 16, agreed.

“It’s really impressive to colleges, especially since I’m African American,” said the Oxon Hill High School senior.

Students of any ethnic background were eligible to apply. The 69 graduates came from a pool of 920 applicants and included blacks, Hispanics, Vietnamese and whites. Many had prior foreign language experience, but they could not have prior contact with the language they studied in the program.

Miss Edwards, a political science major, said learning Arabic fits nicely into her plans to work in foreign affairs after graduation.

It’s “a really important tool to know … especially with the current situation in the Middle East,” she said. “The second-largest religion in this country is Islam now, so Arabic is definitely critical and it’s going to be critical in the future as well.”

About 90 percent of applicants were black, which James Davis, chairman of Howard’s department of modern languages and literature, called “exciting” considering blacks’ historical disinterest in studying abroad and similar ventures.

“This in a sense proves some of the statistics wrong in terms of interest because all of the [black] students who were selected for the program finished it,” he said. “They are preparing themselves for the future because culture and language study is so important these days. They’re getting an edge on their careers and their lives.”

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