Senate approves new Middle East Studies minor after over a year of student advocacy

UBC will be getting a brand new Middle East Studies minor.

The minor, which was approved by the faculty of arts on February 13 and by the UBC Vancouver Senate on April 15, received the go-ahead from the Ministry of Education on April 29, according to project faculty lead Dr. Pheroze Unwalla. It will be offered for the first time in the 2020/21 academic year.

The program will be the first Middle East minor at any institution in British Columbia. It will consist of 30 credits, with 18 credits taken at the 300 level or above.

A much-needed program

Unwalla, an instructor in the department of history, said this program was much needed and will increase the representation of Middle Eastern students in the UBC curriculum.

“I am really, really excited about it,” said Unwalla. “Even before my time here, everyone knew that this was a big gap at UBC.”

Unwalla has volunteered to be the first program chair and will be teaching the core course of the program — MES 300, The Middle East: Critical Questions and Debates. The program will encourage engagement with the history, politics, religions, economies and cultures of the Middle East.

“The Middle East is of immense popular academic and geopolitical interest and could be acknowledged as one of the most misunderstood regions in the world,” he said.

“I want this to not just be a program that focuses narrowly on what people perceive to be the Middle East — which is actually a very flawed concept — but to look at the Middle East in a global perspective, to deconstruct its borders and to talk about a variety of things,” said Unwalla. “I don’t want this program to be all about conflict.”

Over a year of efforts

The new minor is the result of nearly two years of advocacy by the Middle East Engagement Collective (MEEC). The student group submitted the program proposal to the dean of arts in October 2018, which Natalie Armendariz, one of five students behind the collective, said received much support from faculty who offered to teach courses for the minor.

“I think one of the big things regarding the minor is that it’s very exciting not only for the students that have been interested in the region and have tried to focus their studies on the region, but also for those lower-level students in their first and second year who are trying to decide what they want to do,” explained Armendariz.

Now that one of MEEC’s major goals has been accomplished, Armendariz said that the collective plans to become a permanent entity with ties to the program and host a “meditation spot” for Middle East-related events.

Unwalla was particularly impressed and inspired by MEEC’s work. The collective wrote the proposal for the minor, administered a survey showing student support for the project and produced research showing that UBC was unlike top research institutions in the world with its lack of a Middle East Studies program.

“For professors, it is always amazing when you have students showing this kind of initiative and expressing enthusiasm, especially about your own field,” said Unwalla when asked about the role MEEC played. “I give immense credit to them for the work that they did.”

Unwalla hopes that eventually the university will hire more faculty to teach more courses about the Middle East.

“I hope that one day, this will be popular enough and that we’ll have enough support throughout the faculty of arts to make this a major. That would be the ultimate goal.”