A unique fellowship for Middle Eastern languages

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, the Foreign Language and Area Studies Program (FLAS) offers undergraduate and graduate-level academic year and summer fellowships to Penn students studying Middle Eastern languages.

Five people sit along dusty mud walls on an archeological dig
Katherine Burge, second from right, sits with coworkers at an archeological dig in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2017.

Katherine Burge, a Ph.D. student in the graduate group Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, has been excavating sites in Iraqi Kurdistan and southern Iraq since 2011. Working closely with locals who assist in the field unearthing important sites from the Assyrian Empire, she realized how crucial it was to be able to communicate with the workers, many of whom spoke only Kurdish

“Few foreign archaeologists working in Kurdistan speak the local language,” says Burge, who specializes in the archaeology of Mesopotamia. Many come from a background of working in Syria or southern Iraq and speak Arabic, thinking that’s sufficient to work in the Kurdistan region, she says.

“A lot of the younger people we work with, because they were educated after the creation of the autonomous region in 1991, don’t really speak Arabic, so these archeologists have trouble communicating with them in a meaningful way,” she says. “That’s why I wanted to pursue a formal study of Kurdish.”

She picked up a little Kurdish in the field and audited a course when she returned from Iraq to France, where she received her master’s degree from the Sorbonne in 2013. It was a challenge learning a foreign language in a foreign language, she says.

“It was really funny because my teachers in France were former actors, so they wanted to focus on classical Kurdish and poetry. When I went back and tried to employ that in the field, people were like, ‘OK, well, la dee da, fancy.’”

At Penn, Burge has taken her Kurdish from old fashioned to modern and comprehensible with the help of a fellowship with the Foreign Language and Area Studies Program (FLAS).

A person leans up against ancient mud walls at an archeological dig
Katherine Burge leans against a portion of the Jerwan Aqueduct in Kurdistan in 2017.

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, the FLAS program offers undergraduate and graduate-level academic year and summer fellowships to students studying modern foreign languages and related academic or professional studies. 

“Penn is one of only a dozen or so universities in the U.S. that receive these funds from the Department of Education for Middle Eastern languages, placing us in a unique position to be able to support students in their study of the region,” says John Ghazvinian, interim director of the Middle East Center. “In recent years, FLAS recipients have used their fellowships to support a wide range of interests from advanced graduate study to career progression to educational and nonprofit work in the region.”

The Middle East Center is accepting applications for students of Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Kurdish, Tajik, and Turkish. The deadline is Feb. 3 to apply for the academic year 2020-2021. Graduate students get $18,000 towards tuition and a $15,000 stipend; undergraduates receive $10,000 towards tuition and a $5,000 stipend; summer fellows get $5,000 towards tuition and a $2,500 stipend.

With the help of her FLAS fellowship, Burge took courses through the MESALI Language Institute, which is based in Washington, D.C., and typically gets diplomats up to speed on languages before they head to overseas assignments. She took lessons via Skype, six hours a week for 10 weeks.

Her instructor, Farhad Fallahi, is a Voice of America journalist and a Kurd from Iran. 

“It was the first time I’d had a teacher who really had an established pedagogy and knows how to teach Kurdish to Americans,” she says. The course consisted of watching Kurdish news, reading Kurdish newspapers and working through the content with the instructor, as well as lots of dialogues.

Burge will continue studying the language at Penn in a course created and taught by Mohammed Salih, a doctoral student in the Annenberg School for Communication.

She will head back to the site she’s excavating in Kurdistan in May with a much better handle on the Sorani dialect of Kurdish, she says.

Person wearing glasses smiles at the camera with a wooden door and wall behind herZu
Zubaida Qaissi, a senior religious studies and Near Eastern languages and civilizations major.

Zubaida Qaissi is a senior majoring in religious studies and Near Eastern languages and civilizations. She used her fellowship to help continue her study of Persian.

Qaissi, originally from Baghdad and whose family came to Philadelphia about eight years ago, says the fellowship was key in helping her expand her knowledge of Persian and enabled her to cut her work study hours so she could truly focus on being a student.

“Sometimes you almost forget you are students first and foremost, as you start to focus on your jobs or leadership positions on campus,” she says. “I came to the realization that my time at Penn was coming to an end, and I really wanted to use the remaining time to focus on and home in on my interests.”

The fellowship helped her do that, enabling her to focus on Persian, learning about the ebb and flow it has with her native Arabic, she says.

“I’d describe my academic trajectory as one that has shifted many times with regard to the content I’m interested in, but with language being at the center of these revolutions,” says Qaissi. It started with curiosity toward the dialects of Arabic she grew up speaking and an attempt to personally deconstruct the influences and changes they have seen.

“It comes from my own troubled relationship with language as a metaphor for the various movements my family and I, and my parents’ families and so on, have been witness to and have internalized,” she says. “My relationship to language has always felt incomplete, and I consider that a privilege that has allowed me to occupy a space of being outside language looking in to study the construction of language itself and the histories that are layered into a dialect.”

She says the FLAS can help give students a reason or a chance to study languages, even when that is not their primary field.

“The financial component is a great relief for students who push their hobbies and ‘secondary’ interests to the sidelines in order to work and build a preprofessional profile,” she says. “It’s an opportunity that would be a shame to pass up."