High School Students Study Arabic, Careers at UTEP

By Daniel Perez

UTEP News Service

Although just a sophomore at The University of Texas at El Paso, Victor Trujillo is taking steps this summer to achieve his dream job as he helps dozens of high school students learn about the language and culture of the Middle East through STARTALK@UTEP.

Trujillo, a political science major, wants to be a CIA analyst and said honing his skills in Arabic and learning more about the culture will come in handy when he applies for a job with the agency.Phillip Kolbe, Ph.D., visiting professor with UTEP’s Intelligence and National Security Studies program, left, greets STARTALK@UTEP students and leaders into his  “Culture and the Arabic Speaking World” class in Union Building East. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

This is his second year with the program, which is similar to the Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence High School Summer Program that was offered at UTEP from 2007 through 2011. Trujillo is a language tutor for the session.

The four-week program, which started July 9, includes visits to commercial, religious, military and law enforcement  venues that will inform and test the students’ knowledge of language and culture. Among their planned field trips will be several visits to Jerusalem International Foods, 5360 N. Mesa St., where students will need to read the Arabic product labels and be encouraged to “barter” with the store staff.

The 73 students, almost all from area high schools, also will visit the El Paso offices of the FBI and DEA, a synagogue, a mosque, and the El Paso Intelligence Center and JTF-North on Fort Bliss.

“This program gives us a chance to learn more about the world and the opportunities in government. I’m able to hear directly from people who work for these agencies. I’ve already talked to them about internships,” Trujillo said. “This program has given me a leg up.”

The courses also deal with geography, politics and comparisons to other cultures, said Lisa Tomaka, assistant director in UTEP’s Institute of Policy and Economic Development and the program’s director.

Tomaka said the rigorous program has a ripple effect on the students. First, they learn about the language and the culture. Second, they find out about careers in the intelligence community. Third, they are introduced to a higher education setting. Their time at UTEP and interaction with its faculty and students builds their confidence to succeed in college, she said.

“At the end of the program, I want them to walk away with a thirst for languages, a drive to attend college, and an idea of what they want to take (as a major),” Tomaka said while her campers were studying culture and politics. “Understanding cultures will help them with any future endeavor.”

The program is funded by a $100,000 grant from the U.S. National Security Agency’s National Security Languages Initiative. UTEP is one of about 180 agencies around the country selected to increase the nation’s capability to speak foreign languages. Studies have shown that Arabic will be among the world’s most used languages by 2050.

Based out of Kelly Hall, STARTALK@UTEP conducts classes throughout campus, including the El Paso Natural Gas Conference Center, the Liberal Arts Building and Union Building East.

One of the classes, “Culture and the Arabic Speaking World,” is taught by Phillip Kolbe, Ph.D., a visiting professor in UTEP’s Intelligence and National Security Studies (INSS) program. The former Air Force commando who served in Vietnam dressed in a galabia, a traditional flowing robe worn in the Middle East, as well as a headdress and a formal shawl. This is his fourth year with the summer program.

He used a PowerPoint presentation and videos to cover the basics of terrorism, but he mixed in related personal anecdotes from his military tours, international travel and academia to lighten the topic.

“There might be a few Vietnamese who still think I’m a terrorist,” he said.

The instructors try to balance the work with some fun. One example was a bet lead tutor Stephen Mulhern made with a first-year mentor who disparaged his thick red beard.

Mulhern, who will earn his master’s degree in INSS from UTEP next month, promised the woman she could shave off his beard if she learned in one week the 28-character Arabic alphabet and the sound of each letter, wrote the letters, and engaged him in a simple social conversation in Arabic. She helped shave his beard on July 9.

“This is a fantastic program. I wish I had access to something like this when I was in high school,” he said. Mulhern will begin his doctoral work in security studies at Kansas State in the fall and aims to be a CIA analyst. “All the experiences (culture, language, college) ... this introduces them to something they never will get otherwise.”