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Social Sciences

New Arab World Studies Major

By Mary Schellinger

Photo by Randa Serhan

Photo by Randa Serhan

“The Arab world is a region that’s gaining in significance, especially in relation to the United States,” says Randa Serhan, sociology professor and program director of a new major in Arab world studies. “The United States is going to be engaged there for a long time and has a lot of interests there.” 

The new major in the College of Arts and Sciences, which was developed by Serhan over the past two years, offers students a multidisciplinary option to learn about Arab cultures and understand the challenges facing the Arab world. The program is built on a holistic approach to studying the Arab world through a multifaceted lens that includes politics, economics, language, gender relations, literature, geography, religion, and the Arab world’s place in an increasingly globalized world’s redefinition of economic, political, and social relationships. Blending courses from a cross-section of disciplines gives students a nuanced understanding of the Arab world while also providing them the theoretical and methodological tools to analyze the complexity of societies that are anything but monolithic. There will also be a focus on life in Arab-American communities. 

Housed in the College’s Department of Sociology, Arab World Studies draws its 22 affiliated faculty members from the Kogod School of Business, the School of Communication, the School of International Service, and the School of Public Affairs as well as colleagues in the College of Arts and Sciences, a mixture that provides students a rich variety of perspectives. “We’re thinking of all the complexities of these societies,” says Serhan, “from gender relations to literature to religion to music--in other words, the social fabric of these societies. In that respect it’s sociological and is able to span and include so many disciplines from across the university.” 

Following foundation courses looking at the Arab World, Arab Societies, and Global Sociology (or an alternative preparing for a concentration) students will select a course from each of the concentrations in methodology, theory, history, gender, or economy. Students will also be taking Arabic language classes to successfully reach an intermediate proficiency. As students reach the advanced level, they have a great deal of flexibility to take courses that match up to their specific interests. Many courses at this level are being developed to explore the various aspects of the Arab world that are portrayed in the news. These courses rely on the expertise of the faculty to guide students’ understanding of current events in the region. 

“One of the benefits of our classrooms is that Arab and American students get to interact, listen, and discuss the region and the perceptions each group holds about the other,” says Serhan. “And AU’s large international student body and location in DC offer a diversity of students’ backgrounds which elevate the level of the discussions.” 

The program places an emphasis on experiential education. Students will be required to do at least one internship and will be encouraged to participate in a study abroad experience for a semester or through a briefer alternative break study trip. Serhan has already established relationships with several local institutions to ensure that our students will have meaningful internships. Current partners include: the Middle East Institute’s Leadership Development Internship Program, the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, the Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and the U.S.-Qatar Business Council. 

Students will complete their program of study by doing a capstone project that examines a topic from all the different perspectives they studied. 

Knowledge of Arab culture can be valuable both in Washington, D.C., and abroad for students interested in careers in the foreign service, international development, international business, or international media with a focus on the Arab world as well as careers in other related fields. The scholarly, in-depth understanding of the Arab world that students will take away from this program will prepare them for a broad range of careers that relate to the region. 

Serhan aims to attract an initial cohort of 10 students to the program which launches this fall. “A small cohort of students will allow us to work with them through all the stages,” she says. But Serhan is actively making plans to build AU’s reputation as a leader for its bachelor’s degree in Arab world studies. She hopes to create a space where Arab students can come together with their friends and others interested in the region to socialize and discuss issues of common concern. Serhan already sees students interested in the Arab world who regard the program as a central place where they can come for assistance and advising. She’s also planning on hosting conferences on topics of special interest. This year Serhan is hoping to bring in someone to talk about Arab Americans and NYPD surveillance and an expert to discuss gangs in Chicago that are attracting Arab members. 

For more information on Arab World Studies, visit the program’s website.