Valdivia Snags Prestigious State Dept. Scholarship

Drew senior to spend summer in Jordan as a Critical Language Scholar

Marene “Marnie” Valdivia was 8 years old when the Taliban took power in Afghanistan in 1996, stripping women of all rights and forcing them to wear burqas outside their homes.

The restrictions imposed on women in the name of Islam – such as not allowing girls to attend school – perplexed the Wall Township 4th-grader, who was following media accounts. “I couldn’t understand why they had to wear such a concealing cloak,” Valdivia said.

Her curiosity inspired her to start studying Islam and sparked a lifelong interest in religion.  It ultimately brought her to Drew University, where she is a senior majoring in religious studies with a minor in Middle East studies.

To truly grasp Islam and Arab cultures, Valdivia has taken Arabic every semester, and spent breaks abroad immersed in Arab culture and language.  In January 2008, she went to Cairo, Egypt as part of a Drew International Seminar, and last summer she studied in Morocco.

“Communicating in someone’s native language gives you a much better understanding of who they are and what they believe in,” she said.

The U.S. Department of State recently recognized Valdivia’s conviction and her competency in Arabic by selecting her as a Critical Language Scholar.  Valdivia was one of 575 undergraduate and graduate students across the country chosen from 5,300 applicants to study a language deemed essential to advance the United States’ interests overseas.

The need for Americans skilled in critical foreign languages is great.  In September, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that the State Department continues to face foreign language shortfalls that may be negatively affecting U.S. national security, diplomacy, law enforcement, and intelligence-gathering efforts.

Nearly a third of U.S. Foreign Service officers in language-designated positions worldwide did not meet both the foreign language speaking and reading proficiency requirements for their positions as of October 2008, the GAO report said.

“Gaps were notably high in Afghanistan, where 33 of 45 officers in language-designated positions (73 percent) did not meet the requirement, and in Iraq, with 8 of 14 officers (57 percent) lacking sufficient language skills,” the GAO reported.

The 2010 Critical Language Scholars will spend seven to 10 weeks this summer in intensive language institutes studying Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indonesian, Persian, and Russian and Indic (Bangla/Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu) and Turkic (Turkish and Azerbaijani) in countries where the languages are spoken. They are expected to continue their language study beyond the scholarship and apply their critical language skills in their future professions.

Valdivia will study Arabic in Jordan and intends to build a vocabulary that will let her pursue her research into the Israel-Palestinian conflict. When she is outside the classroom, she hopes to converse with Palestinian refugees, so eventually she can conduct interviews on people’s views about the conflict.

Valdivia, who is fluent in Spanish and whose father is from Chile, understands the importance of foreign-language proficiency.  Childhood friends of hers who served in the U.S. military in Iraq told her they were not able to interact with the local residents because of the language barrier.

“They were surprised they weren’t better prepared for the culture shock, or taught basic Arabic phrases that could help them connect with the local people,” she said.

At 22, Valdivia aspires to become a linguist/cultural specialist, a civilian who travels abroad with soldiers to foreign countries and teaches them the language and ways of the local people – helping both soldiers and the residents.

“I always felt I was going to serve in some way and give back to my country,”