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W&M grad awarded fellowship to study Arabic in Oman

  • Adept at Arabic:
    Adept at Arabic:  Austin Spivey '16 will spend a year in Oman studying Arabic language as the recipient of the Boren Scholarship.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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As Austin Spivey ’16 learned as a high school senior studying abroad in Morocco, sometimes it takes an interest in one thing to realize your passion for something entirely different. 

“I was on a trip studying French language and culture in Casablanca, when I rounded a corner and heard a very animated conversation coming from one of the cafes,” she recalled. “I expected them to be speaking French, but it was actually Arabic. I loved hearing the way the sounds interacted and the tone of the conversation. From then on, my interest in Arabic just took off.”

Spivey, a dual major in international relations and Middle Eastern studies, came to W&M in 2012 and quickly enrolled in the first Arabic class she could find. Now, having just graduated May 14, she is preparing for a year studying the language in Oman as a recipient of the Boren Scholarship. 

“I knew after I graduated I wanted to go abroad and really cement my language skills, because it takes a while to understand things like idioms and metaphors from a cultural standpoint,” said Spivey, who will head to Oman in the fall. “You really have to be immersed in the culture.” 

Founded by former U.S. Senator David Boren, the scholarships are awarded each year to students who intend to use their language skills to pursue careers that are vital to national security. This year, more than 800 undergraduates applied and 165 were awarded scholarships. 

Mona Zaki, visiting assistant professor of Arabic studies, wrote a recommendation letter for Spivey and said her award is well deserved. 

“Arabic for Austin is a passion — she is one of our outstanding students,” she said. “As a TA for intermediate Arabic, her fluency and love of the language has been an inspiration to students in our program.” 

Spivey, who has her eye on an eventual career as an interpreter or translator with a government organization like the CIA or the FBI, heard of the scholarship through Lisa Grimes, director of fellowships in the Charles Center, and was immediately intrigued. 

“I thought it was the perfect intersection of my interests because it combines a focus on national security and countries that are crucial to that with an intensive language study,” she said. 

Spivey, who’s spent her time at W&M practicing the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, chose to study in Oman because the language there is markedly different from what she’s learned thus far. 

“Dialectically, Arabic changes between the regions, so it’s very difficult to be fluent, though that’s really my pipe dream,” she said. “I chose to study in Oman because the dialect there is almost unintelligible compared to Morocco, so it gives me diversity.”  

From an international relations standpoint, Spivey said Oman also offers a wealth of benefits to U.S. national security. In her capstone thesis, she noted that while the country tends to fly under the radar in the Middle East, its support is vital for the advancement of U.S. diplomacy in the region. 

“Oman is very important to the U.S. in ways that I don’t think people realize,” she said. “They served as an intermediary during the nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and Iran. So I argued in my application for the scholarship that if the deal were to survive domestic and regional pressures in Iran, Oman would be necessary moving forward in order to maintain good relations with them.”

According to Grimes, “Austin is an ideal candidate for the Boren. She discovered the intersection of her linguistic talents and intellectual interests early on, and she has consistently strengthened both throughout her undergraduate years, taking advantage of every opportunity to improve her language skills and increase her knowledge of the Middle East.”

Boren isn’t the only program to offer intensive language study-abroad opportunities to undergraduate students. Last summer, Spivey spent two months in Meknes, Morocco, thanks to the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS), a program offered by the U.S. Department of State. 

This year, W&M has four students who will be studying abroad as recipients of the CLS scholarship: Becca Thorpe ’17, Shani Cave ’19 and Jacob Keohane ’16 will study abroad in China, while Spencer Small ’16 will study in Russia. 

Undergraduate and graduate students interested in learning more about these and other opportunities should contact Lisa Grimes at