The Jerusalem Experience

At a Humanities Center Colloquium, Kirk Belnap, director of the National Middle East Language Resource Center, spoke on the opportunities that brought about the creation of the BYU Arabic program.

PROVO, Utah (January 31, 2019)—The first trigger was the building of the Jerusalem Center. In 1987, due to this building, there were massive protests around Jerusalem that nearly caused the collapse of the Israeli Government. As professor Belnap stated, “We never could have imagined the outcome…. It’s an event that triggered opportunity for all kinds of other things.” After all the commotion, the Jerusalem center became re-purposed. The idea was then proposed that the Jerusalem Center would vary teaching Arabic and Hebrew. It was around this time that Kirk Belnap was offered a position to come teach. After initially refusing, he eventually relented and moved to the Jerusalem Center in 1989. About his experiences in Jerusalem, Professor Belnap commented that it “was a rich experience beyond, far beyond, what we had imagined it would be.”

Professor Belnap not only related his experiences to Jerusalem, but also focused on how their experiences can be relevant to people today. He said “experimental learning is now the name of the game at the university. This is where a lot of research and resources are going, and it’s an opportunity moment. Just like the Jerusalem center was an opportunity moment.” Belnap suggests that all look for the opportunities around them. Something that seems like a good thing can turn into something truly amazing if correctly pursued, as in the case of the Jerusalem Center.

Even in the face of drawbacks, the professors found other opportunities around them. In January of 2001, the center’s planned program was cancelled due to the Second Intifada. Thanks to  Belnap and others making friends in Damascus, they were still able to have somewhere to work and educate their students. Professor Belnap related that with the students they left in Damascus “within months their value had gone through the roof!” Yet hard times followed as administrations around Jerusalem became uncomfortable with the presence of American students. It wasn’t until around 2009 that the program was actually founded.

Although finally in the Jerusalem Center, times were still hard. Professors began studying different ways to help their students during their time abroad. This changed the focus of the study abroad as they looked into the learning cognition of their students. Many stereotypes surrounding study abroads present them as mere vacations filled with nothing but leisure.  Although there is definitely an element of study in the study abroad programs, their purpose is to help students enjoy themselves and not, as Professor Belnap said, “hunker down and read a ton of stuff.” He continued by saying “people thought there was some sort of magic by going over there and drinking the water . . . [it] turns out, all you get is dysentery.” Belnap and his fellow professors concluded that they wanted to change the culture of their study abroad; their goal was to make it like the Marine Corps, instead of a beach trip.

By overcoming many challenges and dedicating hours to careful research, the Jerusalem Center has assessed the best ways to help their students deal with classroom anxiety and thrive in their different language programs. Now BYU has a thriving Arabic Major—the biggest in the country. BYU’s Arabic program and study abroad at the Jerusalem Center has blossomed to become more dedicated to creating academic experiences for their students and helping them further their education.