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Robert Vega, Director FAC 18 / 2304 Whitis Ave. Stop G6200 78712-1508 • 512-471-7900

Graduate Student Profiles - Middle Eastern Studies

Melanie Clouser - Arabic Studies, Moroccan Malhoun Poetry
Nastaran Kherad - Persian Studies, 20th Century Persian Literature
Alexander Magidow - Arabic Studies, Arabic Linguistics
Joanna Schenke - Middle Eastern Studies, U.S. Foreign Policy towards the Middle East and Immigration and Refugee Policy
Behrang Vessali - Middle Eastern Studies, Iranian-Israeli Relations

BEHRANG VESSALI

Graduate Program: M.A., Middle Eastern Studies, The University of Texas at Austin; Research Interest: Iranian-Israeli Relations in Regards to the Persian Jewish Community

Undergraduate Degree: B.A., Geography with a minor in Geology, University of California at Berkley - Berkley, CA

What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
The coolest thing about the Middle Eastern Studies program is the opportunity to spend a summer or more in the Middle East learning a language. We are also lucky to work with some highly qualified and knowledgeable professors.

What is grad school life like?
Life as a grad student is busy! We are very fortunate to have access to such a quality education, but we are also expected to read, write and research extensively. As opposed to undergrad, a lot of our learning is active. Instead of listening to lectures and taking exams, as grad students we focus more on participation; discussion, presentations , and in general, a deeper analysis of our subject matter. And compared to undergrad, much more of our learning is outside of the classroom.

What is a typical day in the life of a grad student?
A typical day involves a few hours of class and many hours of reading and studying. Weekends tend to be very busy as well. A lot of dedication and hard work is expected of grad students. And unlike undergrad, grad students are expected to have clearer academic and career goals, a high level of focus and seriousness about their studies, and a solid basis of the relevant subject matter.

What is your main area of study within Middle Eastern Studies?
I am a grad student in the Center of Middle Eastern Studies working towards an M.A. My program is interdisciplinary, with an emphasis on language, in my case Persian, Arabic and Hebrew. Students in the Center take classes about Middle Eastern history, politics, religion and culture; anything from media to sexuality. My main area of interest is the relationship between Iran and Israel, specifically in regards to the Persian Jewish community, which acts as an important link between the two nations.

What is your topic for the master's thesis?
I have not begun working on my thesis yet, but I have read quite a bit about the history of Jews in Iran, immigration to Israel (and the U.S.), the community’s perceptions of self-identity in both Iran and Israel, and their role in the political crisis between Iran and Israel, and by extension, the US. I have also spent the last several summers in both Iran and Israel, speaking with people and learning an incredible amount about their lives, perceptions of one another, and their hopes for the future, both politically and culturally.

Do you currently work in your department or work with a faculty member?
At some point in their academic career, most grad students will work as a T.A. in exchange for funding. This semester, I am assisting a Persian lecturer write a new Persian language book. It is a great experience, and I am learning a lot!

What are your top 3 tips for students interested in applying to a program like yours?

  1. Don’t rush into grad school! Real world experience is very important and highly valued when applying to grad school, and during your studies.
  2. Don’t go to grad school just for the hell of it. Have a plan! Make sure grad school, and of course your particular field, are part of your greater goals and will assist you in reaching your goals.
  3. Do not try to relive your undergrad experience in grad school. My social life and learning to be an adult were just as important as my studies as an undergrad. Grad school is much more study-focused. Be warned ☺

If you wouldn't have accepted the UT Austin offer, which schools would have been your next top choices?
UT has easily one of the best Middle Eastern Studies programs in the nation, but there are many other quality programs. I was rejected from NYU (a blessing in disguise) and was in the process of applying to Tel Aviv University when I received a fellowship offer from UT. Studying Middle Eastern Studies in the Middle East, in theory at least, makes a lot more sense than studying in, of all places, Texas.(sort of the opposite of the Middle East) But don’t underestimate the far superior quality of education in the United States and that you will almost certainly have the opportunity to spend a summer, semester or full year in the Middle East. Also consider the American Universities in Cairo and Beirut, where you can receive an American quality education in arguably the two most important centers of Arab culture. Our Middle Eastern Studies Departement receives a substantial amount of government and private funding, as this is a highly relevant field of study in today’s world.

Know yourself. My personal belief is that each school’s program and professors are obviously primary factors for considering which schools to apply to, but don’t forget that you be living in whichever city that school is located. If the thought of a long, bitterly cold Chicago or Michigan winter is depressing and repulsive (as it is for me) then you probably won’t be happy going to the University of Chicago or University of Michigan, both of which have great programs. Then again some people are happy anywhere.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I plan to work for the State Department, so I see myself in 10 years as an experienced diplomat who has many life-enhancing experiences living and working around the world.

Download Behrang's Profile

JOANNA SCHENKE


Graduate Program: M.A., Middle Eastern Studies with a dual degree in Public Affairs, The University of Texas at Austin; Research Interest: U.S. Foreign Policy towards the Middle East and Immigration and Refugee Policy

Undergraduate Degree: B.A., German and International Relations, Pomona College - Claremont, CA

What is grad school life like?
It's lots of reading and writing - most classes require hundreds of pages of reading per week and a semester-long research paper. That being said, I really love the people in my department - the Arabic language program in particular is a really tight-knit and supportive group of people. The Master's program is a mix of humanities, social sciences, and history, so it's very interdisciplinary and every semester takes on a different character.
I also get to have educational and interesting summers - between my 1st and 2nd years, I went to Damascus to study Arabic. This next summer I'll be doing an internship for the LBJ School, hopefully with the State Department.

What is a typical day in the life of a grad student?
Typical day in the life - well, most of our classes only meet once a week for 3 hours, so you have lots of time when you're not in class. I usually get to school early and do reading for a bit (it's also a nice social time, because all the MES students tend to congregate between the FAC and the Union), go to class, go home, repeat. But I also make time to exercise, go to on campus events (speakers, film nights), and usually meet with a professor maybe once a week or two about an assignment or project.

What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
In the dual degree program, I learn about the area I'm interested in working - the history, the language, and political systems of countries in the Middle East, as well as the professional tools I'll need to work in that region, such as economics, statistical analysis, policy writing, and management skills.

As an MA student in an early stage of the program, are you required to conduct research?
Currently, I'm not doing any research - I'm taking classes. I have a one semester professional report in place of a thesis and that will be in Spring 2011 (3 semesters from now). I am generally interested in U.S. Foreign Policy towards the Middle East and in immigration and refugee policy. I imagine my research will be in that vein.

Do you work for the department?
I am currently not working, but I will be a TA for the LBJ school next spring and then most likely a TA for Arabic during my 3rd and final year. TAs attend class, help the teacher with small group activities, help grade papers, and can hold weekly office hours for homework assignments or conversation classes, depending on which class you're TA-ing for.

What would you consider to be the greatest difference from your time as an undergrad?
The greatest difference academically is that you do more outside of class on your own than in undergrad - you may only have one grade the entire semester based off of your term paper. The teachers also have higher expectations of you - in terms of writing, being able to lead class discussions, absorb a lot of material. And your peers can be naer-experts in the field (the degree program requirements often place you in a class with Phd students who may be writing their doctorate dissertation on the subject!).

What are your top 3 tips for students interested in applying to a program like yours?

  1. Make sure you can prove your interest in Middle Eastern Studies if that's not your background- a lot of people may be interested, but you need to have something concrete you can talk about in your application. Enroll in language classes, volunteer with a local agency, spend some time abroad.
  2. Don't go to graduate school unless that's the field you want to work in afterwards - grad school isn't the place where you go to see if you like it. If you're not sure, try working in the field for a year or two. You'll get to see if you want to stay in the field long term or not.
  3. Go to the school, attend a class, meet current students and administrators. Try to imagine your life there - could you afford it? Do they offer merit-based scholarships? Does it offer classes you want? Does it require classes you don't? Get a list of classes and requirements. Think about the details as much as possible to decide whether or not you want to attend.

Did you work on a research project as an undergrad?
Yes, I was a research assistant for two of my undergraduate professors and also wrote a thesis. I worked with one professor compiling a timeline of the role of 3rd parties in brokering peace process negotiations in South Africa. I worked with another professor on Sub-Saharan African politics, doing literature research for a textbook project. My senior thesis was a 90-page exploration of immigration to West Germany since the 2nd world war. I was interested in finding out whether anti-immigrant sentiment was because of ethno-nationalism or economic concerns.

I highly recommend research for undergrads - it takes learning into your own hands and you can engage more closely with the material - you learn how to navigate academic resources in the library and on the web, and you can often see the end result of your struggles in a publication (rather than just a grade).

If you wouldn’t have accepted the UT Austin offer, which school was your #2 choice?
If I didn't get into UT Austin, I would have hopefully joined the Foreign Service. I applied to SIPA at Columbia and SAIS at Johns Hopkins, but neither option was affordable.

What is one an interesting website you would tell a friend interested in Middle Eastern Studies to check out?
I usually read the Middle East sections of BBC World News, the Economist magazine, the New York Times, and al-Jazeera English. Lots of foreign newspapers have English versions too.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Working for the State Department abroad or in D.C. or in D.C. for an advocacy group that deals with U.S.foreign policy.

Read more about Joanna's graduate programs and career plans in her Make Mama Proud feature.

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MELANIE CLOUSER


Graduate Program: Ph.D., Arabic Studies, The University of Texas at Austin; Dissertation: Moroccan Malhoun Poetry

Other Degrees: M.A., Near Eastern Studies, New York University - NY; B.A., Middle Eastern Studies, Emory University - Atlanta, GA

What is grad school life like?
The best part about Arabic Studies for me is sensing that I'm developing expertise. I'm constantly working on how to best transfer that information to others (through writing, speaking, and teaching). It also helps that the Arabic Studies program at UT is the best program of its kind in the world right now.

What is a typical day in the life of a grad student?
A typical day involves a lot of reading and writing in both Arabic and English. The schedule varies from semester to semester. Vacations generally include degree-related work as well.

What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
I chose my program first and foremost because of the people. I figure that grad school can be really tough and stressful, and it can only help if I surround myself with people who I know and respect and who are sincerely interested in their work and in their students.

Can you tell us a bit more about your dissertation?
I hope to write the first book in English about Moroccan Malhoun poetry, which is performed to music. It's a Moroccan Arabic tradition that has been around for more than 500 years. I read the poetry in manuscripts and talk to various people involved in Malhoun today, including poets, musicians, singers, politicians, scholars, and fans.

What would you consider to be the greatest difference from your time as an undergrad?
Grad school requires more commitment to studies, and allows less free time for other activities. That's why it's so important to know what you want to study and why--you'll be committed to it fully, so you better be sure that that is what you want.

Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew as an undergrad?
No, actually I developed a couple of coping mechanisms as an undergrad that I still rely on. For example, I knew then and still learn that time rushes. It's best to be prepared for the next step--I'm always looking a little ahead, thinking about the paper at the end of the semester, or other future goals. That prevents feeling out of control. Also, another related thing is the need to always be applying for funding. I was always a student on scholarship, who couldn't attend college without financial aid, and so I got used to juggling my coursework with time for filling out applications. That is a skill that I continue to draw on just as much, if not more, throughout grad school.

What are your top 3 tips for students interested in applying to a program like yours?

  1. Learn about the program, especially the professors. Grad students' lives are, in some ways, in the hands of their professors. Surround yourself with people you like, respect, and want to be around.
  2. Focus on yourself and your interests. Give yourself time to take care of yourself and to explore those interests so you will be better prepared to talk and write about them.
  3. If you're interesting in a foreign language program, then I highly recommend spending time immersed in that language whenever you have the chance (before and during the program).

Did you work on a research project as an undergrad?
Yes, I researched Juha jokes in Morocco, and learned a lot in the process. I would recommend it to anyone, especially if it involves fieldwork and language immersion.

If you wouldn’t have accepted the UT Austin offer, which school was your #2 choice?
My #2 choice was UCLA. I recommend that students focus on professors first, and programs second. My choice was based on particular individuals with whom I would like to work, and not based primarily on the strength of a program in my area. Of course, coming to UT, I ended up getting both!

What is one an interesting website you would tell a friend interested in Middle Eastern Studies to check out?
I guess I'll have to say Aljazeera. They have great videos available on Youtube, both for language and content.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Hopefully, I'll be teaching Arabic Language & Literature to college students somewhere in the U.S.

Do you have a last story or bit of advice you would like to share?
One of my favorite achievements was winning an Arabic short story writing contest in Cairo in 2004. The prize was a multi-volume set of Alf Layla wa-Layla (1001 Nights).

Download Melanie's Profile

NASTARAN KHERAD


Graduate Program: Ph.D., Persian Studies, The University of Texas at Austin; Dissertation: Ahmad Mahmoud and Socialist Realism: The 20th Century Iranian Writer and Literary Commitment/Engagé

Other Degrees: M.A., Comparative Literature and B.A., Economics & Business German, California State University - Long Beach, CA

What is grad school life like?
I think like in any other discipline and programs, living as a graduate student could get tough and even a bit hectic sometimes. I think for me the issue always rises if I have made the right choice, how life after graduation will be, and all that uncertainty which goes along. At the same time, the learning process is what keeps me going.

What is a typical day in the life of a grad student?
Unfortunately, I’m not as involved as I want be in school activities. I came to Austin from California, and the first year was a lot of adjustment for me. In order to support myself and get my tuition waived, I have to work as a teaching assistant in addition to the required seminar courses. So, it doesn’t leave me much time for other school activities. I have tried, however, to set up poetry or reading nights at home with some of the students so we would benefit from a social and literary circle, so to say.

Can you tell us a bit more about your TA role?
I have a TA position this semester as well as the last four semesters in my home department as well as in the Department of German Studies. Most of all, I like the interaction with students, especially when you see them progress in learning a foreign language. It’s very rewarding. And I also like the hands on classroom and teaching experience. On the other hand, the amount of work, correcting homework, class participation, and all that takes so much time away from my own studies and research, especially now that I have to work on my dissertation.

What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
I think for me the coolest thing is to get to know the modern Persian literature and poetry. In one way, it feels that I am getting to know my own culture, my own people, and my own history. It’s very gratifying.

Can you tell us a bit more about your research?
My work will examine the major works of Ahmad Mahmoud (1931-2002), one of the prolific and controversial Iranian short story writers and novelists, as part of the generation of writers who dominated the Iranian literary productions in the second half of the 20th century. He is best known for his masterpieceThe Neighbors, which I have translated from Persian into English and hope to see it published in the near future.

What would you consider to be the greatest difference from your time as an undergrad?
I don’t think I took my undergrad studies as seriously as my grad studies. Maybe it was the fact that I was not in a field that I really cared for, or maybe I didn’t have much sense of direction. I chose Persian Studies, because it was my passion. I gave up a lot and compromised a lot too since I am older and at a different point of my life. I could have taught at high school, say, and made money, but getting an advance degree was very much more important to me. I think the most significt difference for being in a grad program is the fact that you are here because you choose to be here and you're doing something that you really have a passion for.

Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew as an undergrad?
I don’t think I regret my past studies. Each major taught me a lot, but I wish I had a better advisor or someone who could have guided me through my undergraduate studies.

What are your top 3 tips for students interested in applying to a program like yours?

  1. Have passion and understanding for your choice of study program.
  2. Do your research - know what school to apply to and get academic support as much as possible.
  3. Make sure you have financial support in place, since without sufficient funding a graduate program could be daunting.

Did you work on a research project as an undergrad?
I didn’t do a research project so to say, but we had to do statistic and marketing projects which is completely different than the academic research projects. But I would highly recommend it, not like a mandatory task, but more of an exploration, especially in the related fields in the planned graduate studies.

If you wouldn’t have accepted the UT Austin offer, which school was your #2 choice?
Honestly, I did not apply to any other MES program except here at UT. But my other choice was to apply to Comparative Literature at Berkeley. UT offers one of the leading programs in Arabic and Persian Studies. For Persian Studies, if you have interest in contemporary Persian literature, UT is one of the best schools. For classic Persian, Columbia, UCLA and Berkeley are excellent choices.

What is one an interesting website you would tell a friend interested in Middle Eastern Studies to check out?
The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) site is interesting.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I hope to teach as an associate professor in Persian literature, culture and languages. I also hope that by then I will have hadthe opportunity to publish my second book as well as many translation projects.

Do you have a last story or bit of advice you would like to share?
My memoir, "In the House of My Bibi," of growing up in revolutionary Iran was published in October 2009 by the Academy Chicago Publishers.

ALEXANDER MAGIDOW

Graduate Program: Ph.D., Middle Eastern Studies, The University of Texas at Austin; Research Interest: Arabic Linguistics - Dialects and Sociolinguistics

Undergraduate Degree: B.A., Linguistics, University of Wisconsin at Madison – Madison, WI

What is grad school life like?
Like any graduate student, Arabic Studies students spend a great deal of time working on class work, but also on writing applications for grants, abstracts for conferences, or polishing papers for publication. More than this, we have to work to maintain our language skills, as this is vital for our work and for our future employment opportunities.

What is a typical day in the life of a grad student?
A typical day consists of preparation for class, attending class, and working on whatever statements of purpose, abstracts or projects whose deadlines are coming up. Typically every week or two I will meet with my advisor to discuss papers I’m writing or to develop ideas that I’ve had.

What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
One of the best things about the program here is that you are immersed in Arabic constantly. Most of the classes in the department are offered in Arabic when possible, and often include readings, writing, and classroom discussion in Arabic. It’s as close to immersion as you can get without leaving the country.

Do you work in your department?
I worked as TA for the past two summers and all of last year. TAs in our department help support the teacher in the classroom by facilitating group work between students in class, and grading homework out of class. TAs also write lesson plans and conduct hour long “dardasha” discussion sections with an emphasis on speaking casually in colloquial Arabic. Being a TA can be a lot of work, but it’s rewarding to help students along the road to learning Arabic.

Can you tell us a bit more about your research interest?
I focus primarily on dialects and sociolinguistics. I’m currently looking into the social, linguistic, and historical background of pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabia in the hopes of seeing how the Arabic language developed.

What would you consider to be the greatest difference from your time as an undergrad?
I think the greatest difference between a graduate program and an undergraduate program is that in a graduate program, there is no such thing as “done.” In undergrad, you do your homework and you’re finished. In graduate school, while you do have homework, when you’ve finished with that you still have to work on writing abstracts for papers, writing applications and statements of purpose for fellowships or working to maintain and improve your language skills. You don’t (and shouldn’t!) restrict your reading to the class requirements, but you should be constantly reading papers within and outside of your field. The idea of “free time” sort of disappears to a large degree in a grad program as there’s always SOMETHING you could be doing. It’s harder to maintain a good balance with one’s non-academic life, and I recommend that beginning graduate students try very hard to do so, setting concrete boundaries around exercise and relaxation times.

Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew as an undergrad?
I wish I had had a better view of the options that were open to me after graduating from college. A lot of undergrads look at their qualifications (and often, their loan balances!) and think that graduate school is the only option, especially for students who are afraid of losing their language skills. However, there are many opportunities in the Middle East and worldwide to teach English, earn a good amount of money, and practice one’s language, as well as other jobs. Graduate school is not right for everyone (I personally enjoy it), and it can be good to see the world a bit first and make sure this is what you want to do.

What are your top 3 tips for students interested in applying to a program like yours?

  1. I’m going to steal a tip I’ve seen from other profiles: Apply for funding separately from graduate school. A lot of funding sources (NSF being the most prominent) focus on beginning graduate students, and by applying to these early you can have a somewhat better chance of getting them and you can apply to them multiple times. Also, undergraduates don’t realize how important funding is to their prestige – getting a big scholarship makes you look like someone worth funding, which leads to a cycle of getting more and more funding.
  2. Try to contact not only professors, but also students (especially those who just recently started) to have an idea of what kind of life to expect in your program. Every program is different, and relying on the advice of friends in different graduate programs won’t necessarily prepare you for what you’ll encounter when you get here. Learn about the ecology of academia – what it means to be accepted to a conference, how to get papers published, how to apply for funding, and the road that awaits you after graduation, such as the process of obtaining tenure.
  3. Your language skills are one of your most important assets. In an Arabic studies program, they are what enable you to conduct research, teach, and eventually get a job. Don’t ever neglect them.

Did you work on a research project as an undergrad?
I did a senior thesis at UW-Madison, and while it was an interesting experience, my project was far wide-ranging. I would recommend choosing something more self contained, preferably something that could potentially be publishable or presentable at a conference. However, it did teach me how to write something large and complex, use a number of different sources, and negotiate the differences between readers, skills that will definitely be valuable later on.

If you wouldn’t have accepted the UT Austin offer, which school was your #2 choice?
My second choice was Georgetown, but their program has changed focus somewhat since I applied.

What is one an interesting website you would tell a friend interested in Middle Eastern Studies to check out?
The University of Heidelberg’s Semitic Soundarchives is an awesome collection of recordings of Arabic dialects across the Arab world, from Morocco to Eritrea and Iran. It’s in German – something you need to get used to if you’re planning on studying Arabic linguistics!

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I hope to be teaching Arabic and Arabic culture and linguistics to students at a U.S. university, while working on some amazing new research.

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