As an Adrian College senior with a major in political science and minor in women’s studies, Sara Smither already has a hefty amount of classroom knowledge under her belt. But she isn’t content with that. In her third year with the Model Arab League (MAL), Smither has been developing a legacy that will be difficult to match.
“I really want to make my mark on the world, as cliché as that is,” Smither said. “I’m coming from a small town in the Midwest and people from my hometown haven’t really done a lot of big things. I feel like I need to prove something to myself and to my hometown that I will be influential and I will make a difference.”
MAL is a program on campus (co-chaired by Philip Howe, associate professor of political science, and David Takitaki, adjunct professor of communication) that operates under the administration of the National Council on United States – Arab Relations (NCUSAR). It is designed to allow students to learn more about political issues and cultural differences in the Arab world, and how these factors tie in with international relations. Adrian College’s program was founded during the 2008-2009 academic year under the direction of Howe and Sheri Bleam, professor of communication arts and sciences.
“The primary thing it gives you is a chance to work on your public speaking skills, your writing skills, your negotiation skills, and you also learn a lot about current events in the Middle East,” Howe said.
The program has offered Smither a number of opportunities. In addition to being a Fullbright Scholarship recipient (an award given to exemplary students for research in their field of study), she held a 10-week internship under the direction of NCUSAR working with U.S. – Arab relations in Washington, D.C. this past summer.
“I found out that I was interested in U.S. – Arab relations through this class because I was in a culture that was different than my own and a religion that was different than my own,” Smither said.
During her time in Washington, she worked with embassies, organized pamphlets for NCUSAR conferences, and worked with other interns to develop the MAL regional and national agendas for the 2011 competition. She lived on the campus of George Washington University with other students from around the country. Smither received a tour of the White House from Congressman Mark Schauer (D), explored the Smithsonian Institute museums, and had a weekend excursion to New York City.
Smither also visited locations in Washington, D.C. such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Supreme Court, Capitol Hill, and the Embassies of Bahrain, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. She attended biweekly lectures focused on the “oil-rich” countries in the gulf region of the Arab world, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and Palestine and Iran for political tensions they were facing from people such as the president of NCUSAR, Thomas Pickering from the Pickering Fellowship, and retired CIA secret operatives.
“I learned a lot about the difference in the language (and) a lot about how although they’re all Arab and share that cultural identity, the societies are different, depending on where you are in the Arab world,” Smither said.
Prior to the internship in Washington, she went on a one-month service learning trip to Guam in May. There, she became certified in scuba diving and participated in intricate wilderness hikes called “boonie stomps.”
“It was more of testing my own ability and expanding my own mind in a different field that wasn’t political science,” Smither said. “It was definitely life-changing and completely changed my outlook on a lot of things, whether it was culture or the environment.”
The first year Smither was involved with MAL, the program traveled to a regional competition where she received an award with senior Perry Kuipers for their portrayal of Iraq. Last year, she was awarded at regionals for her representation of Lebanon, and at the national competition she and senior Mitchell Harris received an award for their depiction of Djibouti.
“It’s overwhelming at times, but I’m happy that I have these ties,” Smither said. “I see these networking opportunities as opening doors for my future. One thing that surprised me is when I got to (Washington,) D.C. that you meet a person one time at a conference and that’s your connection. It’s a different atmosphere than what you’re used to in the Midwest. I think those type of networking opportunities are allowing me to expand and do more in the field of U.S. – Arab relations.”
The internship has led to an invitation for the Beirut Exchange, a two-week conference in January in Beirut, Lebanon. Smither will meet with top Lebanese officials to discuss issues in the country, as well as problems in Syria and Palestine.
She will receive 20 hours of Arabic instruction and a sightseeing tour of Lebanon.
“(It’s) a big deal for a U.S. citizen because we don’t have direct flights or ties to Lebanon because their leadership is seen as a terrorist organization,” she said. “The fact that I’m actually going is a little scary, but exciting at the same time.”
Currently, Smither works as an intern in AC’s office of government and public relations. During this election season, she has been able to help organize political events since local candidates were running for office.
“She has been a model of how to do this,” Howe said. “She’s been very good at stepwise using each opportunity to do something else, and every step accomplishing something more impressive. It’s exactly how people should do things. I see her going far, no matter where that is.”
Smither and Howe encourage students to try MAL as a way to expand their knowledge. MAL participates in the NCUSAR program each spring. Students are required to take the Model Arab League course (PSCI 355) prior to participation in the program.
“The class is an eye-opener because you’re learning what our countries believe that is not from the West, so that separates you from your upbringing and the way you’ve always seen things” Smither said. “It’s good to see from the eyes of someone else. There are other people out there who have different view from ours and I think that’s important to realize.”
Michigan students will represent Bahrain, Libya, Palestine and Oman at the 2011 regional competition. If they qualify for the national competition students will travel to Washington and visit the Embassy Oman for which they will be a representative.