Arabic Language Immersion Preps Penn Senior for Government Service Career

Blake Harwood first developed a passion to learn languages in high school as a teenager in Highland Park, Ill. when she won a scholarship to study Arabic in Cairo for six weeks in a foreign exchange student program.

After learning enough of the language to get by, Harwood decided that she would return to the Middle East some day to repeat the language and cultural immersion process with the locals she so enjoyed.

Now a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, Harwood is majoring in international relations and modern Middle Eastern studies. She’s gone on to win more scholarships to study foreign languages overseas since winning the first one in high school.

Since coming to Penn, Harwood has studied in Morocco and Tunisia, acquiring advanced language capability in Modern Standard Arabic and conversational proficiency in Moroccan Arabic and Spanish.

Harwood says that learning Arabic through immersion has made her more mindful and connected to the culture and language she studies, equipping her with experiences to draw upon in her academic pursuits.

On her first trip outside the United States to Cairo when she was 17, a girl in Harwood’s host family spoke English, but Harwood encountered few others who did.

“It was total immersion,” she says. “I remember feeling like I had to simply observe and accommodate the world around me. Everything had a new context and feeling about it and I wanted to be as open and engaged as I could. I discovered qualities about myself that I didn’t know I had: patience, flexibility and courage. “

In the fall of her freshman year, she applied for a U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship for language studies outside the U.S. and was among seven Penn students chosen. She spent eight weeks from June to August 2012 in intermediate Arabic studies at CEMAT, an intensive language institute in Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia.

Once again, she lived with a host family, but the experience this time was different. Harwood explored much of the country, practicing her growing Arabic language skills with native speakers she met anywhere from old markets to the ruins of Carthage.

“We had more freedom,” she says. “I really made the most of that. We took intensive classes during the day but also had the opportunity to go on excursions and trips with our language partners.”

Each time Harwood traveled abroad she was left with a nagging feeling of disappointment. She’d leave thinking that her time in a country hadn’t been long enough. She’d have to come home before she was ready to go.

In her junior year, that changed when she received two scholarships that enabled her to study Arabic in Morocco for seven months.

In 2014, when spring semester ended, she was the only Penn student taking Arabic classes in Morocco on a Penn Middle East Center Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship. At the end of the semester program, Harwood enrolled in advanced Arabic classes at Qalam wa Lawh Center for Arabic Studies in Rabat, Morocco, on a David L. Boren Scholarship.

Harwood lived in Rabat, travelled around the country and also taught English classes to a diverse group of Moroccan students at Forum Alghad for Democracy, Citizenship and Development, a local association.  

“I became close with my host family, made friends and built a life for myself in Rabat. I felt like I was really a resident of the city and a part of the community,” she says. 

When she left the nest of the host family and lived in an apartment on her own, Harwood embraced the responsibility of her independence, taking on the tasks of daily life in the Moroccan tradition.

Now that she is back on campus, she is completing her senior thesis on the role of American foreign policy in the rise of political Islam.

Harwood is involved with the Penn Mock Trial Team and is a language partner for Arabic speakers in Penn’s English Language Programs. She serves as secretary of Dorm Room Diplomacy and has served as an intern for Penn’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program. She currently works as an intern with the Global Interdependence Center in Center City.

As part of the Boren Scholarship, Harwood must complete a year of service with the federal government and is applying for positions based in Washington. She will graduate in May.



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