Four visits to Middle East are preparation for a career as a historian.
Michael Brill ’12 left in August to spend a year in Jordan at the American Center for Oriental Research in Amman. This will be his second time studying there and his fourth trip to the Middle East.
A history and political science major, Brill has a mission to become a historian with a focus on the Middle East, and this passion began while at the University.
After a semester-long class in Arabic, Brill travelled to Jordan for a two week J-term course in 2010. He continued his studies and returned to the Middle East the next two summers, first to Oman, then again to Jordan, studying Arabic in both countries.
Brill visited Westfield State in March to discuss his experiences in the Middle East with students and faculty. He presented as part of the Muslim Journeys grant, which brought a collection of books and movies that the Ely library recently received from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association. (See sidebar.) His message to students was that language is one of the most important studies in college and opens many opportunities for the future.
Brill showed photographs from his time in Jordan and Oman and talked about what he saw in terms of everyday experiences, and he explained how the two Middle Eastern countries differ from one another, and from the U.S. The most apparent difference to Brill was the prominence of religion in daily life. “As opposed to the Western world where organized religion and public displays of devoutness have been in decline, Islam, more than faith alone, is very much a way of life for the majority of Jordanians and Omanis.”
Brill says he continues to go back to the Middle East out of a deep-seated interest in its peoples and to feed his love of studying the Arabic language.
He also explained that the conflict is not as present in every day life as the U.S. media makes it seem. “Much of what certain elements of the media and political spectrum portray as anti-American or anti-Western is really not what they make it out to be,” Brill says. “I met countless Jordanians and Omanis absolutely opposed to U.S. government policies in the Middle East, but never did I feel uncomfortable or that their anger was directed at me personally.”
Because Brill was there on an academic scholarship, he spent most of his time in a campus setting at the American Center for Oriental Research in Amman in Jordan, and the Center for International Learning in Oman.
“Reading is most important to me,” Brill says. “I need to be able to read and understand the language quickly and efficiently.”
While in the states awaiting his return to the Middle East last spring, Brill applied to graduate programs and was accepted to the University of Chicago as well as Georgetown University, among others. “It was essential for me to have Arabic, along with good grades, to get into Georgetown,” says Brill. Many of the programs he has been accepted to have been generous enough to let him defer for his full-year fellowship in Jordan.
His experiences impacted his admission into graduate school; his application for Georgetown was a scholarly essay on the conflict in Syria, which he experienced almost first-hand while living in Jordan.
In 2010, after his first course in Arabic, Brill participated in a two-week J-term travel course in Jordan with Professor John Paulmann and five other students. Brill made friends from across the world and learned about the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program, where he applied for a grant while continuing his Arabic studies with Professor Brahim Oulbeid at Westfield State.
Brill was awarded the grant that February and anxiously awaited news of which Middle Eastern country he would be travelling to – with choices including Morocco and Tunisia. That summer, he spent eight weeks in Oman and learned more about the country than he ever would in a classroom.
Brill’s interest in the Middle East continued to grow during his senior year of college. He wrote news articles about the conflicts there for the Campus Voice, and recounted stories of his time in Oman for the Squirrel Squire. His writing culminated in a senior’s honors project about the Iran-Iraq War. Brill applied again to the CLS program and received another grant allowing him to return to Jordan for the second time after graduating in the spring of 2012.
“I want to emphasize that the opportunities to do this started at Westfield State, through J-term opportunities and the option to take Arabic classes,” he says, noting that he encourages all students to study foreign languages and let the opportunities unfold.