Q&A: Desiree Shayer '12

 

Desiree Shayer ’12, studying in Amman, Jordan, talks about presenting her research, Jan Plan in Israel, and witnessing one part of the Middle-East revolution.

By Stephen Collins '74
Photography by Zachary Ruchman
 

Desiree Shayer ’12, from St. Louis, Mo., is a government and an independent Middle Eastern studies major. In December she left for a Jan Plan in Israel and a semester in Jordan. She spoke to Colby via Skype from Amman in April.

Shayer
Desiree Shayer ’12 in Amman, Jordan, where she is supplementing two semesters abroad with a State Department program in Arabic.

Remind me about the research you presented with Professor David Freidenreich at the Association for Jewish Studies annual conference in Boston.
I was Professor Freidenreich’s research assistant over the summer, and we looked at the lack of Jewish quotas at Colby during that time [between World Wars I and II]. Colby was pretty much the only school of the New England liberal arts colleges and of the Ivy League that didn’t have a quota limiting Jewish students.

Is it typical for an undergraduate to present at this annual Jewish studies conference?
As far as I know I’m the only one to have done it. It was a great experience. Professor Freidenreich really went out of his way to give me that opportunity.

Any stagefright?
I was definitely very nervous, but ... the people there were all really supportive, really excited there was an undergraduate student presenting.

And then to the Middle East.
I drove to the conference from my last final, and then I got on the plane four days later. I left December 25th, actually.

Tell me about the Jan Plan in Israel.
Over January I was part of a volunteer program in Israel and doing some traveling. It’s a program call Sar-El, and it brings people from around the world to see what life is like for people in the army, so I was living on an army base. The actual volunteer work isn’t very interesting, but it was a really great experience. Israel and Israel’s military is such a hot-button topic today that I think it’s really important to understand and to see who these people are and what they do and how they feel about it.

Then you were off for Jordan?
Yes. I spent about a week travelling through Israel and then I crossed the land border between Jerusalem and Amman and joined my program. It’s through CIEE [Council on International Educational Exchange], a U.S. based—it’s actually based in Portland, Maine—study-abroad program. We are on the University of Jordan campus.

What are you studying?
It is an intensive Arabic program, so I’m in Arabic classes two or three hours every morning, five days a week. Just for Arabic. I study both standard Arabic and also Jordanian colloquial Arabic, which is what everyone here uses in everyday life.

Any experience with the language beforehand?
Last semester. It’s a relatively new program—we have a two-credit tutorial where students, if they want to study a language not offered at Colby, they can study with another student, a tutor who’s paid by the College. ... [The tutors] had both studied in the Middle East, both, I think,  in Jordan. They taught twice a week, and so I was able to learn all the letters and a lot of basic vocabulary and basic grammar. It was fantastic. When I did arrive in Jordan I was able to test into the second semester of Arabic here.

And how is it you’re staying through the fall?
First, I chose to extend my study abroad for a second semester in the fall. I want to be a competent Arabic speaker. That will be important to the jobs I’m looking at when I graduate, and this was really the best way to achieve that. A second part is that I’m interning with an international development consulting firm here, and the opportunity to continue working with them was part of the decision, since that’s what I think I want to do.

But there’s more, right?
For the summer I received a Critical Language Scholarship from the U.S. State Department. It’s a program they run to support American students learning critical-need languages. It’s not just a scholarship of money, it’s for their own program. I had applied before and didn’t get it, so I was very excited. It’s extremely competitive. ... I requested to be placed back in Jordan, mainly because the colloquial forms of Arabic are so different and I really wanted to master one. They also have sites in Tunisia and Morocco.

You mention Tunisia. You picked an interesting time to be in the Middle East, didn’t you?
I think it’s made it even more interesting to be here now. To be able to see what’s happening and to be able to get so many firsthand views and opinions.

Have you witnessed protests?
As an American I could go and be perfectly safe, but any Jordanian I talk to, it could cast suspicion on them. So we’re asked to stay away from the protests. There was one that saw some violence, so there is a safety issue. But even yesterday, on the university campus, you walk by the main courtyard and there are people chanting. And I’ve walked by a couple of protests, one in Aqaba a few weeks ago. Most of these protests are pretty straightforward—people standing around peacefully holding signs, chanting things. They stay for a while, they go home. Particularly in Jordan, people have been protesting a lot of these same issues for a lot longer than in Egypt. So these are the same issues that have been around for years.

So it’s not such a big deal?
Jordan is a totally different situation than you had in Egypt or Tunisia, because [here] everyone is very loyal to the king. [At the one violent protest] the group that everyone seems to think caused the violence, they are very pro-monarchy and want the king to have complete power. The other group, the pro-reform group, they were having this protest to show support for reforms the king talks about in his speeches.

So, not quite as revolutionary as elsewhere?
Exactly.

Why are you staying in Amman?
I really wanted to stay for another semester but, because I’ll only have one semester back at Colby before I graduate, I was having some close calls being able to finish my requirements. So the program in Jordan agreed to create an independent study for me to meet my art requirement.

And Colby approved it all?
The whole process was surprisingly easy. ... Being able to get that kind of support from people is one of the things over my entire time at Colby that I’ve really appreciated.

How have you been received as an American in Jordan?
It really depends on how you act. If you come here and you’re clearly more than just another tourist going to Petra, you’re received really well. I try to dress respectfully and modestly, and I really try to use Arabic, and people just get so excited that there’s an American girl here and she’s using Arabic.

Has it been an issue in Jordan that you are Jewish?
It’s not an issue, though it’s not something I really talk about with people I don’t know. ... A significant number of my friends here on the program or here through Fulbright are Jewish. ... It’s not something I feel unsafe about. It’s something I can be proud of—that there’s a whole community of Jews here trying to learn and trying to understand and trying to see the other side.

It all sounds good. But you are coming back, right?
I’m having a great time, but I’ll be back in January and get some snow again. We almost had a snow day here. There were flurries. They almost canceled everything.

 
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