Lately, the conversation inside the Common Grounds coffeehouse is a little foreign to most people on the UW-Green Bay campus. Twice a week, for about an hour, this group of students, staff and faculty get together for an Arabic conversation group.
“I wanted to take Arabic because I wanted to feel what it was like to learn to read,” said Sherry Lacenski, assistant director of the Phoenix Bookstore. “I couldn’t do that in a language that used the Latin alphabet.”
Lacenski is what you may call the lead instructor of this informal group. She fell in love with the language three years ago.
“When you start learning Arabic, it is like nonsense syllables,” Lacenski said.
Her counterpart is student Jeremy Wildenberg.
“With Arabic, everything is completely foreign,” Wildenberg said. “It’s like learning language from birth again. It’s definitely a challenge.”
Wildenberg spent 14 years as an Arabic and Russian linguist in the Army. This fall he will help teach an Arabic language course on campus. In July, Wildenberg will be part of a group traveling to Jordan for a month.
“Any time you travel to a foreign country, you want to be up to speed on their customs and courtesies and it shows a great deal of respect that you at least made an attempt to learn the language,” he said.
Humanistic Studies professor Heidi Sherman and Social Work professor Jolanda Sallmann are learning a little Arabic before going on the trip. They say they’re hoping to share what they learn with students down the road.
“Just the opportunity to go there, learn about a different culture, learn part of the language and work to develop those collaborative relationships is something I was really interested in doing,” Sallmann said,
“I teach a course on medieval Islamic civilization and I hope to kind of bring what I gain from the experience to that class,” Sherman added.
One of Sherman’s students is also going on the trip to Jordan.
“People ask me why did I want to study Arabic. They’re like, why would you want to study that? Why not? It’s a chance to learn something that’s different,” said student Cory Miller.
The trip to Jordan is in preparation for the new Center for Middle East Studies and Partnerships.
“The new center is a unique thing for Green Bay, especially with the focus on the Middle East,” said Jay Harris, international projects coordinator for UW-Green Bay.
“Having people like this in Jordan for a month, meeting counterparts, will help us develop opportunities and possibilities that couldn’t be imagined a year ago,” Harris said.
Those involved say it will go a long way towards making the campus and the community a better place.
“The demographics of Northeastern Wisconsin are changing. I think every place you go you can see the influence of different cultures,” Sallmann said. “I think just to make Northeast Wisconsin as inclusive and respectful of diversity as possible. And I think the Center is a great first step in that direction in terms of welcomeness.”