Cloe Medina Erickson

building, mountains, smoke

Erickson has continually pushed the traditional limits of the architecture profession believing that the historic built environment has a profound impact on our health, productivity and cultural cohesion. In 2006, she began working in Zawiya Ahansal, a remote region of Morocco’s Central High Atlas Mountains. Individually, Erickson built partnerships with the local tribes, associations, and the Moroccan government resulting in the restoration of a 350 year-old fortified granary into the region’s first library and community center (photo left). This project led to recognition and partnership for future projects by the Moroccan Ministry of Culture.Erickson earned a Bachelor of Environmental Design and Master of Architecture from Montana State University, Bozeman, MT USA in 2000. From 2001 until 2006 Erickson gained extensive experience working with local, state and federal government bodies as the co-chair of the Livingston Historic Preservation Commission in Livingston, MT USA. During this time she studied Modern Standard Arabic also at Montana State University, an educational pursuit that took her to Morocco, Egypt, and Yemen.

In 2010, Erickson founded the Atlas Cultural Foundation (ACF), a US non-profit with the mission of helping underserved Moroccans, especially women and children, improve their quality of life through locally determined development projects. ACF is partnered with the local Moroccan association Amezray SMNID and together they will launch a community health program, scholarship program for secondary school girls, and 6th grade tutoring program in 2012.

Erickson is also the founder and coordinator of the Montana State University sponsored program, Morocco: Sustainable Community Development, a mould breaking, hands-on graduate service learning program that brings American university students to Morocco to work on ACF’s project.

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Interview on Mountain West Voices-"The Humanitarian Architect":

A Teaching Network Brings Arabic to the Heartland  From The Chronicle of Higher Education By David Wheeler

Jeremy fowler examining morrocan patient

Jeremy Fowler, an American doctor, tends to a patient at a clinic in Al-Mafraq, Jordan.Photo by Khalil Mazraawi, Agence France-Presse, for The Chronicle

As a student at Montana State University more than 10 years ago, Jeremy Fowler decided to take Arabic, a language he was only dimly aware of and was surprised to learn was available to him. Today he is a doctor, using his Arabic to treat impoverished Bedouins with tuberculosis at a small clinic near Irbid, Jordan.

"I never imagined myself working somewhere like this," he says. "But the language studies prepared me to start helping out immediately."

Dr. Fowler took his courses through the U.S. Arabic Distance Learning Network, which blends videoconference instruction and in-person teaching to provide classes at eight universities in Missouri, Montana, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. About 2,500 students have completed the network's courses, making it one of the country's largest Arabic programs.

Unfortunately, language-instruction advocates say, the network's innovation is unlikely to spread, at least this year. Although the Arabic network is now self-sustaining, the compromise federal budget for the remainder of the current fiscal year may kill a proposal to broaden it to include Portuguese and Mandarin, two languages that could build U.S. connections to important, populous countries. The bipartisan budget measure enacted last month will result in the Education Department spreading cuts of 40 percent across language-instruction and international programs, effectively killing the chances for the language network to expand.

"This country's demand for linguistic and intercultural skills is growing," says Miriam Kazanjian, a consultant with the Coalition for International Education, an advocacy group. "And these cuts are working against that need."

The distance-learning network began at Montana State in 1998, before the terrorist attacks on the United States that heightened the country's awareness of its need for Arabic speakers to decode intelligence and close the cultural gap with the Middle East and North Africa.

Cloe Medina Erickson with Moroccan man

Cloe Medina Erickson, an alumna of the program, uses the language skills it taught her as she negotiates agreements to preserve historic buildings in a remote region of Morocco. “Without Arabic I would be completely lost,” she says.

"We were looking at adding additional languages," says Norman J. Peterson, vice provost for international education at Montana State, "and it was clear to me it wasn't going to happen if we did it the traditional way." He estimates the cost of a tenure-track language professor, with salary, benefits, and professional development, at $100,000 annually. And it's difficult, he says, to take native speakers of a language and turn them into skilled, passionate, college-level teachers. "The choice is unaffordability on the one hand or mediocrity on the other," he says.

The model that Mr. Peterson and his collaborators came up with was to spread the relatively expensive and scarce expertise of a professor who knows how to teach a difficult foreign language across an institutional network, resulting in a cost of about $15,000 for each campus, including a study-abroad program. The professor conducts classes with three or four institutions at a time for two hours each week by videoconference. For another two hours a week, native Arabic speakers who are often college students themselves teach the Arabic novices on each campus under the professor's close supervision.

Once a year, the teaching assistants from all the campuses get together in person with the professor to go over the curriculum and review and improve their techniques. Each year, the network has checked the quality of the program using comprehensive, standardized national tests with a sample of students at the end of their instruction.

"We know that the program can produce proficiency, and it can do so in an affordable way," says Mr. Peterson. In 2002 it won an Andrew Heiskell Award for Innovation in International Education from the Institute of International Education.

The Arabic-studies network tries to connect seamlessly with its study-abroad programs, one at the Alexandria Centre for Languages in Egypt, and the other at Al Akhawayn University, in Morocco. Mr. Peterson says the Arabic teachers in the study-abroad programs find out exactly where the students who are coming overseas left off in their instruction back in the United States and what each student's strengths and weaknesses are.

The network used federal money for its first eight years, but has been financially independent since then. Many years, Mr. Peterson says, it "teeters on the edge." Participating institutions drop out, and new partners need to be found. Even with the program's low costs, university officials often find it easier to cut an externally provided program than to fire a faculty or staff member they know personally. Twice, the program created its own competition: Teaching assistants trained by the network convinced partner universities that they could take over Arabic instruction.

Getting Past the Technology

At the network's instructional heart is Nabil Abdelfattah, an Egyptian-born associate professor who came to the United States in 1981. He has a doctorate in applied linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin and has served as a director of the Arabic School at Middlebury College. For family reasons he lives in the Bay Area, and he teaches from a distance-learning classroom at the University of California at Berkeley, although he is an adjunct faculty member at Montana State. In the classroom, he uses one camera for his face, one camera for documents, and a remote control to switch between the two. "It's very taxing to stand in front of a screen in a room by yourself," he says. "There is no atmosphere except the one that you create."

Mr. Abdelfattah strives to get past the technology to connect with students and to build connections between them, adding humor and camaraderie. "Whether it is in Dayton, Ohio or Bozeman, Montana," he says, "It is one network, one community, one class."

He adds a strong cultural component to instruction, showing documentaries about subjects like a Palestinian poet or the lives of four Egyptian women and holding discussions about topics like why some women wear the hijab, or headscarf, and others do not. In a classroom conversation about food that is popular in Arabic-speaking countries, he remembers a Moroccan teaching assistant talking very emotionally about Americans eating couscous purchased in a box, instead of making it at home. Outside the classroom, students follow up with online discussions.

"Teaching Arabic is not just teaching how to construct a grammatically correct sentence or how to say greetings," says Mr. Abdelfattah. "When the students leave us, hopefully they are different than when they come to us."

Like Dr. Fowler in Jordan, some of the network's alumni feel that learning Arabic changed the direction of their lives. After graduating from architecture school and traveling in Egypt and Yemen, Cloe Medina Erickson is restoring historic buildings and doing community development in a remote region of Morocco's Atlas Mountains. Some of the buildings she works on are hundreds of years old and, once used as a combination of granaries, forts, and cisterns, are the village's central civic architecture. She works with local tribes and the government to negotiate written agreements to preserve the buildings. "Without Arabic I would be completely lost," she says.

Cory G. Walters, once an agriculture major at Montana State, remembers taking Arabic just because it seemed exotic. "My mom couldn't understand why the heck I would take a foreign language because I had never taken one in high school," says Mr. Walters, who grew up in Kalispell, Mont. "She was really discouraging me." (His mother has since changed since her mind.)

After a year of study at Montana State and a semester in Morocco, he spent the summer of 2000 in Syria on a study-abroad scholarship. Although he struggled with the infamously difficult language, he says, "I could get around." And he had some memorable experiences. He and a fellow student regularly went to a local eatery in Aleppo, using their "third-grade Arabic" to talk to the owners. A child approached them trying to sell lighters. They rebuffed his effort but engaged him in conversation. Suddenly he blurted out, "Would you like to meet my family?" The students hailed a taxi and went with the lighter salesman to the Aleppo suburbs, where the child raced into his home yelling, "I have some Americans with me." The family members disappeared into their bedrooms and returned in what appeared to be their nicest clothes. That visit began a series of evenings of long meals and conversations in simplified Arabic and "lots of pointing." Each night the family members would beg the students to spend the night instead of returning to their own residence. (They never did spend the night.) As the students were finishing their packing to leave Syria, 16 of the family's members arrived to say goodbye.

Mr. Walters, now an assistant professor in agricultural economics at the University of Kentucky, is focused on his scholarship while he tries to win tenure, but wants to return to international programs later in his career. Learning about a different language and a different culture, he says, "forces you to look at things from different angles."

Emily Hagemeister

Emily with class

In some ways, it seems as though distant lands become 'real' to individuals only when they have a personal connection: a story, a face, an experience. Growing up on a farm in rural North Dakota, the Middle East couldn't have seemed more distant. My first connections to the Arab world were international students studying at North Dakota State University.  As we became close friends, I saw the world through their eyes; the picture that I witnessed was one filled with rich cultures, a remarkable language, and several religions that were misunderstood by many Americans.  I was in the middle of a master's degree in anthropology and was about to start teaching introduction to anthropology classes, so I felt that I had a unique opportunity--and responsibility--to learn more of the truth about the Middle East and North Africa.  In sha Allah, I would be able to correct some of the rampant and damaging stereotypes I began to see as the Arab world became 'real' in my eyes.  

As I was looking for opportunities to educate myself, I heard about the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS), a fully-funded, summer, intensive language program of the U.S. Department of State.  Knowing that I wouldn't be able to fund my own travel to the Middle East and that Fargo, North Dakota might not offer me the type of cultural exposure I needed, I applied for the 2008 CLS Arabic program to jump-start my language skills.  After a long two months of waiting, I heard that I'd been accepted to the program and placed in Jordan.  When I stepped off the plane into the cool evening desert breeze, I couldn’t have known how much my whole career path would be changed.  

My two months of intensive CLS Arabic training allowed me to enter second-year Arabic with Dr. Nabil Abdelfattah through the U.S. Arabic Distance Learning Network and Montana State University. I thoroughly enjoyed the class meetings and being connected to other groups from across the United States.  My Arabic improved substantially under Dr. Nabil's instruction, readying me for my next steps--and helping me to realize just how much I had yet to learn.  I began teaching, which was a life-long dream, and got reconnected at NDSU; everything was going to plan...but I missed the Middle East.  I knew I had to return; there was so much more to learn and experience and I had only scratched the surface.

My longing for the Arab world led me apply for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) to Egypt in 2009-2010.  I worked countless hours on my application, then waited.  Months went by.  I passed the first round of selection, so my application was being forwarded on to Egypt.  Then, I learned that the Egypt program was canceled and that interested students would be able to apply for ETAs in Jordan.  Given my extremely positive experience in Jordan, I was happy to make the change.  Less than one month before the in-country Fulbright orientation, I received the email I'd been waiting for, beginning with "Congratulations..."  That was all I needed to see.  

I spent nearly a year living in Amman, Jordan, helping teaching English at a K-12 school and a math education center, and immersing myself in as much of the Arab world as I could.  During the last few months of my life in Amman, I worked as the Resident Advisor for the CLS 2010 program, watching American college students experience my adopted home for the first time.  As I observed, I realized that no amount of speaking about negative stereotypes in the classroom could have the impact of sweltering days spent navigating life in Amman and cool nights of drinking Turkish coffee and mint lemonade with Arab friends. 

My return to the U.S. brought with it a career shift; I chose a path in International Education so I could help others have similar experiences and make connections.  I recently joined the staff of the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC) as the Program Officer for the CLS Arabic language institutes.  My interest in the Middle East and North Africa came full circle and now I'm one of the people who plays a minor part in making the Middle East and North Africa more 'real' to the students in our programs, their families, their communities, and beyond.  To me, nothing is more important than connecting, learning, and understanding.  These are my top three ingredients for a better world.

Jayme Kreitinger

Jayme grew up in Manhattan, Montana and attended Montana State University where she received her BA in Modern Languages, Spanish and minored in Global Studies. She studied a year in Spain when both the U.S. and Spain were experiencing a politically charged environment surrounding Muslims and the Arab world. This shifted her attention to understanding perceptions of Muslims and she spent a month in Morocco to experience the culture and religion. Morocco proved to distill many negative stereotypes of Muslims and she was eager to explore the Arab world on a deeper level. Jayme returned to MSU and enrolled in her first year of Arabic and spent the following year studying abroad in Morocco. After graduating, Jayme worked for a study abroad program in Spain, but she was still eager to learn more about the Middle East and soon found herself in Jordan studying Arabic. In Jordan, she deepened her understanding of the region and her interactions with Jordanians solidified for her the importance of contact at the individual level to break down stereotypes. Wanting to give other students the opportunity to understand the world better, she returned to Montana and took a position as the Study Abroad Coordinator at MSU. Jayme knew she had a strong desire to return to the Middle East and to continue with her Arabic and cultural and political understanding of the region, particularly as the events of the Arab Spring were unfolding. Jayme received a Fulbright research grant to study sports and peace-building initiatives in Jordan and returned to Jordan in the fall of 2011. Jayme is still on her Fulbright grant, studying the Jordanian dialect and conducting research on sports and peace-building initiatives. Jayme also volunteers teaching yoga to Jordanian woman and works with sports camps in the Gaza refugee camp in Jerash. She is also helping to develop a summer sports camp for an all boys orphanage. When Jayme is not working on her research or volunteering in the community, she spends her time rock climbing and supporting the new rock climbing community in Jordan. Her Fulbright grant finishes in September when Jayme will pursue a position in the field of sports for development and sports for peace-building in Jordan.

Jayme Kreitinger (pictured left) with students
playing soccer

Stephen Lack

After studying Arabic through the U.S. Arabic Distance Learning Network at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana, Stephen participated in the summer study-abroad opportunity in Alexandria, Egypt.  Still wanting to hone his Arabic skills, Stephen took an intensive summer program at the American University in Cairo, Egpyt. 

His time in the Middle-East has not ended with language classes.  Stephen spent the last 6-months doing an internship for the Adventists Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) in southern Yemen. Additionally, he worked in a Somali regugee camp where his Arabic skills were used daily. 

Stephen is currently finishing his thesis at the American University in Cairo, which will complete a Master's in Migration and Refugee Studies. Stephen says his Arabic will "definitely be useful in the future," as he plans to persue a career in refugee camp management and humanitarian relief in the Middle East and Africa. 

men in garden
Stephen with students