Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Business [language]

I just had my last class of Business Arabic. It's very strange that this important (time-consuming) aspect of my study now all of a sudden disappears. Like it was strange to just study Political Science during my last year at Leiden University.
It was great to have the opportunity to be challenged by a high-level applied language course, learn a lot of useful vocabulary and learn about (business) practices in different countries. I think that it's very important to study the application of a language in real-life in order to get a good grip of what the language is all about. Just studying grammer and vocabulary doesn't do it for me. The plans of Prof. Esseesy, head of the Arabic department and my professor for the past semester, to launch applied Arabic courses tied to a certain class such as International Affairs or Security Policy sound like a great idea to me. This approach is the most important difference between my experience here at the George Washington University and in Leiden. In Leiden, it seems like the professors ask: What can the student do that will benefit academics? while at GWU, they ask: What can academics do that will benefit the student?
Because I don't aspire an academic carreer, the last approach appeals more to me: how can academics be used to contribute to the personal developement of students? While it is important to invest in academic research, because only a small portion of university students end up in academic careers, I don't think the general focus of a curriculum should be research. Instead, it should be to offer a wide range of opportunities to gain insight in a specific field of study, combining several disciplines, languages and educational methods. Combining those aspects in one class - such as Business [language] - sounds like an great idea to me. Therefore, I hope that the Japanese department at Leiden will one day re-establish their course in Business Japanese - or Political Science Japanese, or Anthropological Japanese. I was lucky enough to take a course about Japanese Fascism with Prof. E. Mark in my last year of Japanese studies. There we used Japanese texts to study the political and military environment in Japan during the Second World War. This not only offered new insights in the field - Japanese scholars tend to have a different view on the subject, in fact, they are more prone to call the WWII regime in Japan fascist than many western historians - but also forced me to read academic Japanese, learn new vocabulary etc. It connects the language to a real-life situation.
I'm very much looking forward to applying Arabic in the real-life situation of Al Majmoua. In the end, the only way to really learn a language is to live in a country where it is spoken. So that's what I'm going to do.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Spring in Session

So, it seems to be spring already for about a month, but I must say it doesn't really feel like it here in DC. Even though one day the weather seems great, the next day it's horrible. Right now, I can hear the thunder and rain is pouring down. And of course, the weather is great when I have to work, while it's horrible when I could use some sunshine.
During one of the moments when I did get a breath of fresh air the last few weeks I visited the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin. Very touristic, but I must admit it did provide a beautiful surrounding for the Jefferson Memorial (see picture) and the Roosevelt memorial. I also enjoyed the visit of Jasper Claessen (my reverred friend from the Vechtdal College in Hardenberg who is now getting his PhD at the MIT) combined with an Easter celebration with a lot of friends and Chloe's family. But apart from such happenings I've been mainly working on school, SIFE - and moving to my new place!
Yes, once again I moved, this time to live with Chloe in her - our - appartment at Columbia Heights. It all happened on Saturday April 4th. Now I live a bit further away from downtown and campus, but it's a more 'hood'-like neighborhood, a great appartment and low costs. Can't complain! And of course a girlfriend to complete the package! I was hanging around at her place so much already that the difference doesn't seem that significant, but it's a great experience until now.
And next to her appartment, I also invaded her workplace. I got the opportunity to volunteer with Ashoka as an Award Writer to write nominations for Ashoka fellows Joseph Adelegan and Ursula Sladek for certain awards that would support their initiatives. It was great to get to know more about them and get an insider's view of Ashoka. They support a large number of great fellows all around the world. However, instead of offering support, I think I'd rather do something myself. But there is a lot to learn and a lot to discover out there. It was just a short volunteer-job, so I'm already done, and now I can focus on...finals!
Yes, finals are coming up again, but luckily I don't have that much to worry about: a relatively short project for Business Arabic (I'll probably translate the website of Al Majmoua), a take-home exam for International Political Economy, and a normal exam for International Macroeconomics and Finance and for Financial Management. Oh, and a paper for Negotiation Skills, a class that took up my whole last weekend. It was fun, but time consuming, and of course it deprived me of any chance to enjoy the few days of nice weather we have here.

Some while ago, when I realized that the semester was almost over, I also realized that this one (academic) year at GW seems to have gone by even more quickly than a semester in Leiden or Tokyo. It has been a great, crazy experience, and I'm happy I have one more year to run around DC, discovering the nightlife, nature, NGO's, national heritage, my next employer and new friends. And looking back on the last few months, I have done a great amount of things that where on my to-do list for a while now:
- Live in the USA
- See New York
- Find a girlfriend who shares (almost) every interest
- Learn Arabic
- Establish my own organization
- Set up community projects
- Study economics
- Learn about Finance and financial management (I even already learned some things about investment banking, but that was just a weekend-crash-course)
- Get an internship in finance
- Learn more about microfinance (okay, that will happen this summer, but I already took care of it)
- Arrange a trip to the Middle East (a region where I haven't been yet)
- Learn negotiation skills
- Play basketball on a street-court in the US (even though it was just with 12-year old kids)
- Campaign for Obama
- Attend his inauguration

Not a bad score for one year. I'm curious what summer and next semester will bring!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Studying Arabic

Now I’ve been studying Arabic for almost two semesters, and I must say it’s still not an easy language. But at least it has an alphabet with just 28 letters, instead of the thousands of characters in Japanese. The pronunciation of Arabic, on the other hand, is much more difficult than Japanese, even though it’s fun to produce sounds that I never thought I could produce.

But such technicalities are not the main reason why I wanted to learn the language. I wanted to know more about that huge region and all those people and all those religions and cultures that are so often and simplistically referred to as “Arabic”. Among others the many people from that region who now live in the Netherlands and France made me curious about their background and their history. Taking a course in Business Arabic instead of Intensive Elementary Arabic 2 (which would be more appropriate for my level) enabled me to learn about Islamic banking, traffic laws, employment, tourism and technology in the region. Reading texts about the different countries, I became more aware of the many differences and practical implications of local customs, religious norms and national policies.

Of course, in order to really learn about the countries, the people and the economic, political, social and cultural situation I'll have to go there. And even then I'll still see only one small part of the region. Initially I was very interested in Northern Africa, because many people who now live in Europe come from that region. But the rapid economic development of the United Arab Emirates also made me curious about those states, and at the same time I met several people from Lebanon here and heard great stories about Beirut.

So I had to find a way to go there - for a longer period of time and while doing something usefull, like taking classes in Arabic or - even better - work on my skills in financial analysis. I ended up applying for internships at microfinance organizations in the Middle East/North African (MENA) region. I received feedback from maybe a dozen of them, and a few where interested in having me over for the summer. Al Majmoua, a microfinance organization in Lebanon that was one of the first that responded, eventually offered me an internship as Junior Financial Analyst at their head-office in Beirut, where I will work on Activity Based Costing, historical ratio analysis, the development of new financial services and research on islamic banking (among others).

I still can't believe it's really going to happen.

What I heard from my friends, Beirut must be an amazing city, and Lebanon must be a beautiful country. It will be the first time I visit the Middle East, so I think visiting any place there would be a totally new and amazing experience, but to think that I'll go to one of the most beautiful countries in the region where my friends are from is very exciting.

At the same time, I don't really know what to expect: how will people treat me? Will I be able to speak Arabic at all? What will it be like to work for a microfinance organization? Will I have an opportunity to meet their clients? What is it like to live in Lebanon? I think I will learn a lot, about daily life, harsh reality, beautiful surroundings, social engagement, economic development, financial empowerment, history, politics, ideologies and many more things I can't even think about now. It will be a whole different world, and I am grateful that I can now learn the language that will enable me to step into that world.