For Elizabeth Atkins ’13, the daughter of a retired United States Army Colonel, the study of Arabic has always seemed like a way to connect to her birthplace.
“My dad was stationed in Saudi Arabia from 1990 to 1992,” explained Atkins. “My mom lived through 27, or 29, depending on who is telling the story, Scud missile attacks during Operation Desert Storm while she was pregnant with me. Between my parents and grandparents, stories of my birthplace kept the culture alive for me.
“I principally wanted to learn Arabic so that I could learn more about where I was born and hopefully go back and visit one day. Now I simply love Arabic, the culture, the language, the people, and I can’t wait to go back to the Middle East again.”
When it came time to look at universities, culture factored into Atkins’ decision to attend William & Mary, as did the small size, diverse, intelligent student body and the Arabic language program. An affordable price tag was also something Atkins took into consideration.
“I knew that I didn’t want to go into a lot of debt because I eventually wanted to make it over to the Middle East,” recalled Atkins, who is using tuition assistance and GI Bill benefits from the Virginia Army National Guard in order to help pay for her education.
Army training delayed the first semester of Atkins’ sophomore year, including a year-long Arabic course needed to keep up her studies. Determined to make the best of the situation, Atkins realized that she could make up time by completing a summer semester overseas.
She decided to join a program in Jordan, and was awarded W&M’s Critchfield Scholarship, designated for study abroad in particular Arabic-speaking countries. With help from the Global Education Office at the Reves Center for International Studies, she was able to transfer nine credits from the program and get back on track with the sequence of her Arabic minor.
While in Irbid, a northern city of Jordan, Atkins took language classes five hours a day, five days a week.
“When we weren’t in class, we were traveling,” said Atkins, who toured quite a bit of the country, including the famous Wadi Rum desert and Petra, an archeological city carved into the rock mountains of the Ma’an governate.
Free time in Jordan meant time for Atkins to practice her language skills, both by interacting with local students and community members, and volunteering at a women’s English class at an American-run language center in Irbid.
“My biggest challenge was overcoming my fear of speaking poor Arabic,” recounted Atkins. “I had to let go and realize that I was going to make mistakes, and the biggest thing is to just communicate. If I could get across what I wanted to say, then it’s okay.
“People didn’t seem to mind if I mixed up the language calling a male by a female pronoun. The local convenience store shopkeeper where I went nearly every day wasn’t fazed that I called him a her when I inquired as to how the day was progressing. He smiled and answered my questions anyway.”
Atkins, who currently serves as a Chaplain Assistant in the Virginia Army National Guard and will graduate with a degree in sociology, would like to continue both her Arabic studies and using her skills at helping others in a future career, possibly assisting newly-arrived immigrants from the Middle East settle into American society.
When considering how her own study abroad experience has contributed to building such a career, Atkins offers emphatic advice to fellow students.
“Do it! Do everything you could even think of doing while you’re over there and make lots of memories. Don’t be afraid to practice your language – the more mistakes you make, the better!”