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Getting Involved with the Middle East Center

October 20, 2020

The following excerpts are from a conversation with John Ghazvinian, Interim Director of the Middle East Center, as part of a Fall 2021 info session on Penn Law’s International Certificates and Joint Degrees.


About the Middle East Center

The Middle East Center is a federally funded Title VI National Resource Center. Basically, what that means is that we were created in the 1960s out of Title VI of the Higher Education Act that distributes funds every four years on a competitive basis to centers around the country that are so-called area studies centers. We are one of fifteen Middle East NRCs, as they’re called, National Resource Centers, across the U.S.

So, if you’re at Penn and you’re interested in Middle East studies, you are very fortunate to have a Title VI center because that is basically a significant amount of federal funding for events and programming and fellowships and other kinds of activities related to the Middle East. We try to function as a kind of hub for Middle East studies and interest in the Middle East generally on campus as well as throughout the Philadelphia community.

As a Title VI center, we do a range of both public and community programing as well as academic programing. So in terms of our public outreach, we do generally about 100 public events every year, either on the Penn campus or somewhere in the Philly community. If you go onto our website, there’s also a list of other upcoming events. We have an event next week about actually the Djene Bajalan event, about the Kurds and the Treaty of Sevres. That’ll be happening online next week. And then in a couple of weeks, we’ll also have an event on cultural heritage in Syria and so on. We had a great event last week about the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, with about 350 people present. It was really exciting to be able to do that.

We also do a graduate student research social hour every few weeks. Every three weeks we have graduate students from across Penn show up. And each time we have someone present for 15 minutes, two people, rather, present for fifteen minutes each on their research in a very, very informal setting over some beer and pizza. And it’s a real range– PhDs in SAS on things like ethnomusicology or history or political science, to people in the Law School working on refugee rights, or people in GSE working on educational issues in the Middle East, etc. It’s a great way to bring people across disciplines and across professional tracts together who really are invested in the region to kind of talk about their work in a very relaxed setting. If you are a law student specifically working on research, do get in touch with me because we can get you on that list.

Certificate in Middle East and Islamic Studies

The requirements of the Certificate are relatively straightforward.

Ours is only four courses.  Two courses have to be language at the 500 level or above, which is pretty much any language you would take, but no more than two [courses can count toward the total course requirement]. And languages–it typically is Arabic, but it doesn’t have to be Arabic. You can also do Persian. You can do Hebrew, you can do Turkish. There are also languages we will consider, such as Pashto, Uzbek on a petition basis. That doesn’t come up very often. But Penn is also offering other languages like Kurdish. We can work with you on that if you’re interested. But typically it’s going to be Arabic or maybe Persian or Turkish.

The third course is taken in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GAS) and must be related to the study of Middle Eastern or Islamic societies. For most law students, that is going to be Joe Lowry’s class on Islamic Law that is taught through NELC, the Near East Language and Civilizations department. And if you don’t know Joe Lowry, he’s is a great person to get in touch with. He is actually somebody used to practice as a as a lawyer himself for many years before then making a shift into academia and getting a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies and specializing in Islamic law. And he’s a terrific Arabic linguist, as well as a legal scholar and a great person to take a class with.

Then, the final class has to be taken at Penn Law, and should deal with Middle Eastern or Islamic law. One course many students take toward the certificate is Islamic Finance taught by Michael McMillan. If there is no course focused specifically on Middle Eastern or Islamic law, we will consider some other type of international law, if you write your final paper on something related to the Middle East or Islam.

You have to maintain a 3.0 grade average in the classes you take in SAS. The classes you take in SAS are chosen in consultation with me.

Foreign Language and Area Studies Scholarships (FLAS)

FLAS, is something I really do want to draw your attention to. This is one of the really unique things about being a Title VI center on campus. We receive about a million dollars in funding effort during each four-year cycle just for FLAS fellowships. The FLAS is the Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship that’s provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

The FLAS deadline is typically the last week of January, first week of February, something like that. It’s competitive, but it’s not wildly competitive. We get 20, 30 applications every year. For graduate students, we have five fellowships that we give away for the academic year. And up to five or six for the summer, depending on how the funding shapes up. Basically, this is a great way to get paid to learn a language and to study the Middle East.

For Academic Year FLAS, graduate students, receive $18,000 in tuition support, as well as $15,000 as a stipend which you can spend however you like. During the academic year, you are required to take two classes each semester, one language and one area studies. The area studies can be anything on the Middle East, ancient or modern.

And of course, that would overlap with the certificate. So, it would make a lot of sense if you’re looking at certificate anyway, to also consider applying for FLAS and vice versa.

If you’re doing the summer FLAS, it’s only $5000 in tuition and a $2500 cash stipend. But that is for just a language program for 120-hour, six-week language program that can be done anywhere in the world under normal circumstances, whether in the US or abroad, including Penn.

I’m happy to set up an individual meeting with you if you want to kind of go over some of the rules and complexities around FLAS. One thing I should mention is that because these are U.S. government federal funds, you do have to be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.

I would strongly urge you to consider applying FLAS as a law student. You’re actually in a very strong position because the committee looks for diversity in terms of language, but also in terms of discipline. So it’s very attractive to the committee to have students applying for FLAS who are not your typical SAS graduate students, Ph.D. students. We’ve had a couple of FLAS recipients recently from the law school.

Other Funding Opportunities

The Janet Lee Stevens Fellowship is a $2500 fellowship for anyone doing Arabic or Islamic studies. That is open to law students as well.

There is a Reporting Fellowship is through the Pulitzer Center. It is a $3500 fellowship that we give anyone who wants to do journalism. I know that as law students, your summers are usually pretty scripted. But if you are interested in journalism of any kind and you want to travel to the region and do a project six weeks or longer, whether it’s photojournalism, blogs, documentaries, all that kind of stuff, that is a great fellowship to apply for. And you get support from the Pulitzer Center.

There’s also a photography contest, which is open to those students, with a $500 top prize. If you’ve taken any great pictures in the Middle East, you should consider applying for that. That’s open to anyone. There’s a translation contest is also open to law students, but that language rotates every three or four years, and I believe it’s Turkish next year.


That’s generally kind of an overview of some of the things we do at the center. I’d really strongly encourage you to get on our mailing list as well, and I’ll drop my email.

Obviously, you can just do the certificate and not interact with us in any other way. But we can bring you into a whole community of Middle East studies and people interested in the Middle East through the center. And we’d really love to have you be part of that and the programing that we do. So, if you’re interested in the region, just get in touch. I’m always happy to talk.