Christopher Kay

Christopher Kay studies Arabic at the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo in preparation for his stay in Jordan.

Student does his part for national security by learning Arabic

BGSU sophomore Christopher Kay is one of only 30 people nationwide to receive a U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship to study Arabic in Amman, Jordan, this summer.

Kay left June 15 on the six-week, all-expenses-paid trip, which is sponsored by the state department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Council of American Overseas Research Centers. Competition was intense—there were more than 1,200 applicants for the 30 spots. The other winners came from some of the most elite institutions—such as Harvard, Boston College, the University of California at Los Angeles, Northwestern and Arizona State University—which tend to have Middle East Studies departments.

But Kay has something going for him that few others have: actual experience in the Middle East, having served in the Iraq war. When the war broke out while he was in high school, he enrolled in the Ohio Army National Guard the day after his 17th birthday and went to basic training between his junior and senior years. He delayed his college enrollment until he had completed advanced infantry training following graduation from Sylvania Southview High School.

Kay comes from a long tradition of military service. “My grandpa was in World War II; his unit liberated Dachau. My great-great-grandfather was in the Civil War, fighting from Texas. And my dad was a captain in the Vietnam War,” he explained.

He registered for college in 2005, only to find he would be deployed to Iraq that January. His service was interrupted when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in June 2005. He underwent surgery in the Green Zone in Baghdad and was sent home for radiation treatment.

For most people, searching for Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, around Baghdad roadways six days a week would be enough service to their country, but Kay saw another, bigger problem than the deadly, hidden bombs.

“I really liked the Middle East, and I see the need for understanding other languages now. The biggest factor in why these people don’t like us is that they don’t understand us,” he said. “Stationed in Baghdad, my unit regularly interacted with unfriendly Iraqis, most of whom could not speak English. Never having a native speaker, my unit was forced to rely on hand gestures and the few Iraqis with a rough knowledge of English. If every unit going outside the bases in Iraq had a translator, we would have been able to connect with the locals much more closely and gather information that we are still missing out on today.

“We don’t really know anything about them, either,” he said. “We don’t take Middle Eastern history in school, and they don’t study American history.”

Kay’s deployment often proved difficult and frustrating when he was dealing with local citizens, yet it taught him lessons he will never forget. “The most important lesson is that language is the biggest barrier to cross when dealing with a different culture,” he says. “If two people cannot communicate, then cooperation is nearly impossible.”

So when he learned of the language program from Dr. Kristie Foell, International Studies director, he immediately applied and, to his surprise since he did not yet have any grades on his BGSU transcript, was accepted. In fact, the agency said his application was one of the most impressive it had received.

Kay leaves June 15 for pre-departure orientation in Washington, D.C., then will fly to Jordan, where he will live with a local family and study at the American Center for Oriental Research at the University of Jordan. In a region where “the dialects vary even between cities,” he will learn “modern standard Arabic,” but says he also hopes to pick up the colloquial Jordanian dialect.

While in Jordan, he is also planning to gather information in preparation for his Honors senior project, which will focus on terrorism. “I can get firsthand quotes while I’m in Amman,” he said.

In preparation for the trip, Kay has been taking Arabic at the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo. He has found the large Arab community in the area, which includes Toledo, Dearborn and Detroit, very generous, helpful and willing to teach non-Arabic-speaking people everything about their language and culture.

The international studies major plans to continue studying Arabic when he returns and hopes to obtain an internship with the CIA or the state department. He also would like to study abroad again, perhaps in Egypt.

Eventually, he would like to work in counterterrorism with the state department, CIA or the defense department. “I feel that if they give you this scholarship, you should use it to do something more than teach,” he said. “You need to contribute to the cause.”

As he wrote in his application for the Critical Language Scholarship, “In the post-Sept. 11 world, understanding of this area (the Middle East) is pivotal for our national security and I want to do everything I can to contribute to our nation’s safety and well-being.”

June 19, 2006