Most students at the College of William and Mary were sitting in their elementary school classrooms 10 years ago when word spread that terrorists had attacked New York City and the Pentagon. The events of Sept. 11, 2001 shaped not only the formative years of an entire generation, but by stirring in them curiosity about foreign policy and the Middle East, also influenced their higher education.
“It definitely played a large part in shaping my childhood and academic interests,” Caroline Raschbaum ’14 said. “After Sept. 11, I feel as though I became much more politically aware. Even though I was only in fourth grade, I watched the news every day with my parents and talked a lot about the government and its actions.”
Enrollment in religious studies, international relations and non-Western language classes has soared over the past decade as more and more students become interested in studying the Arab world. Research conducted by students at American University in Washington shows that current college students are more likely to pursue careers in international relations, study languages, watch the news and be politically active due to the impact of Sept. 11.
At the College, the new multidisciplinary Asian and Middle Eastern studies department will offer a concentration and four minors for the first time this year. Religious studies professor Tamara Sonn correlated the growing desire among College students to learn about the Middle East with their exposure to the 2001 terrorist attacks.
“At the College of William and Mary, students have reacted to the fear and confusion caused by 9/11 through study and community engagement,” she said in an email. “They continue to fill classes on Islam to overflowing, and have led the way to greater integration of Muslim students on campus.”
The religious studies department offers three classes focused on Islam: Introduction to Islam, Islam in the Modern World and Women in Islam. Dozens of students are turned away from these classes each semester due to their widespread popularity.
“The classes focused on Islam are by far the most in-demand courses in the religion department,” Religious Department Chair John Morreal said. “There is so much prejudice about Islam, so when students find out the good stuff, their interest is piqued.”
In recent years, there has also been a high demand for Arabic language classes. Many international relations and government majors have chosen to add Arabic minors to their degrees in order to appeal to future employers.
“The amazing thing that I have found through conversations is that students feel that they have been fooled by the media because of the language barrier,” language professor Chadia Mansour said. “The students want to take Arabic as a tool to know the truth about the Arabic world.”
In addition to studying foreign affairs inside the classroom, some students at the College have chosen to pursue military service careers. Eighteen graduates of the College Reserve Officers’ Training Corps from the classes of 2006 to 2009 have served in either Iraq or Afghanistan; one alumnus, Todd Weaver ’08, died in military combat in Afghanistan last September. Twelve ROTC alumni from the classes of 2010 and 2011 are planning to serve in foreign conflicts.
The College has 50 students enrolled in ROTC this year. According Brian Randall, office manager of the department of military sciences, the majority of them are pursuing international relations or government majors.
“The kids that come into the program in the post 9/11 years are extremely dedicated and patriotic and want to make a difference,” Randall said. “We talk a lot about serving the greater good.”