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A Thirst for Different Languages

UM senior Ashley Brooks has earned scholarships and praise for her dedication to mastering languages.
Ashley Brooks

Ashley Brooks is not one to shy away from a new experience. Two years ago, she left the University of Miami campus with a small suitcase and moved to Tangier, Morocco for a few months to live with a host family and explore her desire to learn Arabic. Last summer, she moved to Amman, Jordan to fine tune her Arabic skills even more. In the future, the UM senior hopes to live somewhere in the Middle East, working either for the United States Foreign Service or as a professor at a university in the region.

“I want to put these language skills to use and the best way to do that is to be in an immersive environment,” said Brooks, a political science and Spanish double major.

Brooks, a self-proclaimed “language fiend,” can speak her native English along with Spanish, Portuguese, and now, Arabic. Next, she is planning to spend the second half of her senior year learning French. That is in between her job as an assistant at UM’s Law School alumni relations office and her other job working as a teaching assistant for a Comparative Politics course.

“I know I have a lot on my plate, but I have a big appetite,” joked Brooks.

Yet Brooks’ desire to broaden her own perspective is one of the qualities that her mentors say is unique about her.

“She has an extraordinary degree of intellectual curiosity,” said Professor Bradford McGuinn, who has had Brooks in several political science classes. “When a student expresses interest in the subject matter with the dedication Ashley has demonstrated, it’s always very gratifying.”

Senior Ashley Brooks in Amman, Jordan

Senior Ashley Brooks in Amman, Jordan where she studied Arabic for the summer.

Brooks said her interest in politics was only natural, considering her upbringing. She grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, and still has many family and friends there. But the Brooks family moved to Honduras when Ashley was in the third grade, so she quickly became fluent in Spanish. Her father was later stationed in Peru, so the family had to adapt to new surroundings often.

Brooks said her choice to attend UM did not feel like it would be a major change because of all the time she spent in South America. Yet in college, Brooks still wanted to advance her Spanish skills. In a class freshman year, she learned about the overlap between Spanish and Arabic during the Arab conquest of Spain. That influence led her to think that learning Arabic would be an “easy crossover,” Brooks said. It was not quite that simple, but Brooks said she relished the opportunity to learn something novel.

“Arabic really forces you to think about things differently and to literally read from the complete opposite side,” she said. “But I loved that it was very challenging and something I’d not had much experience with before.”

To improve her Arabic, Brooks decided to enroll in language classes her sophomore year. She also applied for a Critical Language Scholarship with the help of April Dobbins, UM’s Director of Prestigious Awards and Fellowships. The highly selective scholarship allowed Brooks to spend nine weeks in Morocco that summer where she improved her Arabic drastically.

The following summer, Brooks applied for an even more selective program called the Boren Scholarship, which would pay for her to study Arabic in Jordan. Brooks was the first UM student to receive the award in four years, Dobbins said.

“She is open to being out of her comfort zone and that is evident in her choice to pursue Arabic,” Dobbins added. “A lot of students would be afraid to venture out on their own, but for her, it’s just making her better prepared for the Foreign Service. She takes the unique cultural challenges in stride and that could be useful for her.”

Brooks said she enjoyed spending time in Morocco and Jordan because it revealed that there is great diversity in the region, and it helped her to realize firsthand that American views about the area are shortsighted.

“People associate a lot of violence with the Middle East, but there is so much more to it,” Brooks said. “There are beautiful historical sites like Petra and the Dead Sea in Jordan, and just because there’s a civil war in Syria does not mean there is not beauty to be seen or lasting friendships to be made in the region.”

Political Science Professor Calla Hummel met Brooks last fall in a high-level course she was teaching on corruption. Hummel said Brooks made an impression because of her thoughtful contributions to discussion. That prompted Hummel to ask Brooks if she wanted to be a teaching assistant in her Comparative Politics class this fall. Since starting, Brooks has guest lectured three times.

“When I mentioned that she could guest lecture, I wanted her to know it was an option, but I was surprised she wanted to do so, and even more so multiple times,” Hummel said. “But she has great public speaking abilities, has interesting ideas, communicates well and is engaging and confident when she does. It has worked out well for both of us.”

This summer, Brooks is already making plans to return to the Middle East and is applying for graduate programs in Middle Eastern studies. Until then, she wears a necklace with her name written in Arabic as a reminder of her passion for the language.