The Middle East/South Asia Studies program has come a long way in its evolution.
Thanks to ME/SA, UC Davis offers more courses about the region in comparative literature, political science, history, art history, music and languages – including Hebrew, Arabic and Hindi/Urdu – than ever before.
The program, previously only available as a minor, is now an official option as a major for the 2008-2009 academic year.
At least a dozen students have said they are going to declare the major and over 50 are expected to join in five years. The minor had 16 students last year.
It all started when students began requesting a program for this area of study through ASUCD. In 2001 several students contacted Suad Joseph, anthropology and women and gender studies professor, asking if she would help them establish the major.
Joseph, now the program director, gathered undergraduate and graduate students to develop the groundwork for creating a program.
The group first began meeting in 2002 when eight faculty members created a research cluster with a network of students.
“We met at my house once a month to discuss our own research,” Joseph said. “We did that for three years.”
The beginnings of a plan for a minor began at those group meetings. By the end of winter quarter 2004, the minor was approved.
“We decided to put together a proposal for a major submitted in 2005,” Joseph said. “It took actually two and a half years to get the major fully approved and launched this fall.”
In 2005 ME/SA was selected by a campuswide faculty committee to apply for an education grant.
“It was chosen because colleagues recognized absolute urgency of developing studies on campus,” Joseph said. “UC Davis would match dollar for dollar whatever the Department of Education gave us.”
The program won the grant in spring 2006 – making it the first UC Davis program to do so. Funding totaled over $600,000 – $200,000 of which came from the Department of Education, and the rest came from the university.
“When we won the grant we had no office for ME/SA,” Joseph said. “But students didn’t know we were offering courses.”
Once the program obtained an office, staff and course approvals, the faculty advertised the new subject. Soon, courses were not only full, but had waiting lists.
Junior Shruti Banerjee, an international relations and ME/SA double major, is a peer advisor for the major who pursued the ME/SA program because international relations doesn’t offer a concentration in the region.
“There weren’t enough classes on South Asia and the Middle East at that time,” Banerjee said. “It’s a hot topic in current events, and in general it promotes diversity.”
Banerjee believes ME/SA is important because it promotes awareness about the area’s religion, history, language and culture.
“Our entire staff support was the students,” Joseph said. “Undergraduates helped us design the website, design brochures and advertise. So much of the hard work of doing research of making this program happen was because of student initiative. Working closely with faculty, they realized this was so necessary they worked overtime.”
Funding began with Hindi, Arabic and Urdu language classes. Hebrew was already being taught at Level 2, but the faculty wanted to teach other languages at a third year level. They applied for funding for the first two years of Arabic and Hindi/Urdu.
“We had to make a commitment to continue these languages and also give faculty funding to develop courses, lecture series, community outreach, conferences, and we applied for funding for travel to the Middle East,” Joseph said.
There are still five positions that the dean of humanities is waiting to release for Hindi/Urdu language classes. There should be five more faculty members within the next two years, Joseph said.
The program went from having two faculty members in 2001 to its current 27, and five more are expected in the next few years. Five courses became 70 courses.
ME/SA’s development is timely given worldly affairs. Students pursuing an education in this field can find careers with the United Nations, NGOs, international foundations or humanitarian work. A significant part of the student population takes ME/SA courses to learn more about their heritage, Joseph said.
“A number of students want to do a double major,” Joseph said. “They see this as an area they need to be informed about or just attracted to the language or history or culture. [They think], ‘This is going to make me a more informed person.'”
Junior English and ME/SA double-major Chelsea Snow’s decision to pursue the major started with her decision to go abroad in India, where she is currently taking a semester to study. Snow learned about the ME/SA program through her Hindi/Urdu classes.
“The major is very relevant in our world today,” said Snow in an e-mail interview. “Whether you look at it from a political and economical viewpoint, or through a religious lens, these areas of the world are important to such a variety of world faiths. Also, the Middle East and South Asia have such rich cultural traditions that go unnoticed by other departments, I’m glad that there is faculty support for an in-depth study of these regions.”
ME/SA is holding a fall welcome event on Oct. 7 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the University Club Ballroom.
POOJA KUMAR can be reached at email@example.com.