In a Tucson high school, a group of 37 students are learning about the political and economic realities of those living in the Middle East through a course taught by University of Arizona outreach coordinator Lisa Adeli.
In working with the Cholla High Magnet School students, Adeli offers apolitical and nonpartisan teachings with the goal of expanding what young people know and understand about the Middle East. As the U.S. governemnt broadens its engagement with the Middle East, such teachings are important for cross-cultural understanding, she says.
In addition to teaching, Adeli takes the opportunity to encourage students to consider college, and provides them with professional development opportunities.
"My personal goal is to see all kids realize that if you want to work hard and go to college then you can do it," said Adeli of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, where she works with local teachers to implement impartial information, resources and activities to further the understanding of the Middle East.
The class at Cholla High covers a wide spectrum of topics related to the Middle East. Throughout the school year, students learn about the region's history, food, culture, traditions and music from guests who attend the class.
"I love what I do and I think we are making a difference in a lot of ways in increasing knowledge of the Middle East and getting people interested in college," Adeli said.
Adeli, who began her career as a high school world history teacher and still regards herself as a K-12 educator, chose to start the humanities class at Cholla High because of its already existing Arabic program. While the class is not affiliated with the Arabic program, it is a parallel effort.
Part of the class's curriculum requires that students participate in the annual National History Day. The competition requires students choose a historical topic and conduct extensive research, relying on library archives, museums, historical sites and literature in preparation for their presentations. For some students, the competition has served as inspiration to continue college-level studies on the Middle East, Adeli said.
Two students from Adeli's humanities class who are now at the UA were inspired to incorporate a Middle Eastern emphasis in their undergraduate majors.
One of them is Stephanie Medina, an international relations junior, who took an interest in learning more about Middle Eastern culture after competing in National History Day.
After hearing about a group of Arabs living in Mexico, Medina began studying a group of Lebanese people who also had immigrated to Mexico. The project placed at the regional competition, then the state level. Eventually, Medina – a high school sophomore at the time – went on to represent Arizona at the national competition in Maryland in 2009. Her intensive research on the Middle East for the competition influenced Medina to continue her studies about the culture and language.
"I believe the class changed my view on the world, specifically the Middle Eastern culture," Medina said. "The class showed me what a huge and important role the Middle East has on the world in all aspects."
Also as a result of the class, Medina learned about the importance of the Middle East, its relation to the U.S. and the role the region plays in the world, she said. Her passion to learn more about the Arab culture helped Medina receive the Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship prior to attending the UA.
Medina firmly believes that if it were not for the humanities class in high school she would not have made it to the UA.
Unlike Medina, who had interest in the Middle Eastern culture prior to taking the class, Valeria Guadalupe Martinez, now a UA junior majoring in Middle East and North African studies, was placed into the Cholla High School class randomly.
"I learned so much about the people, the culture and the food was amazing," Martinez said. "The class really opened my eyes, that the stereotypes are not always the most correct source of information about the Middle East."
Martinez competed in National History Day with a project on the influence of Byzantine art and architecture on the Turkish Ottoman. The project sparked Martinez's interest to travel to Turkey, a trip that resulted in her deciding to major in Middle Eastern and North African studies, studying Turkish. She earned scholarships to study in Istanbul, Turkey last summer.
Stepping out of her own culture, Martinez said she was surprised to learn of how much is occurring on in the world.
"I know I'm always going to be immersed in the Middle Eastern culture; that part of me is never going to leave me," Martinez said. "I know how to adapt to different cultures and how to connect to other people and it'll always be something I hold dear to my heart."