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OPE: Office of Postsecondary Education
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International Education Programs Service

Building U.S. Capacity for International Education: The Pipeline in Action

Archived Information


The Federal investment in developing and maintaining foreign language and area expertise functions as a critical pipeline supporting U.S. national security. The Title VI and Fulbright-Hays grant programs administered by the U.S. Department of Education are the pipeline's core; their support for foreign language, area and international studies and infrastructure-building at U.S. colleges and universities ensures a steady supply of graduates with expertise in less-commonly-taught languages, world areas, and transnational trends. Without the incentive provided by this funding, basic economics would prevent many universities from offering and students from studying the languages and cultures of many of the world's current trouble spots. A clear example of what this investment means, in building and maintaining U.S.-based knowledge, can be found in the work of Indiana University's Inner Asian & Uralic National Resource Center and its Director, William Fierman.

Bill Fierman is one of the country's leading specialists in Central Asian politics. His research focuses on language and nationality policies, politics, and social problems in Central Asia, providing him with insights into regional attitudes and nationalism. In the words of Eugene Huskey, Professor of Political Science and Director of Russian Studies at Stetson University: "Bill has soldiered in the trenches to advance our understanding of the deeper political and social processes in the region and to enhance cooperation between American and Central Asian educational institutions....It is at the intersection of politics and culture that Bill has made signal contributions to the literature, witness his pioneering work on language policy and practice, a topic of enormous importance in Central Asia."

In Fierman's own opinion, he would not have had the professional development opportunities he has had without critical Federal assistance in both funding and organizational support provided by government employees such as those connected with the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the U.S. Department of State. As a graduate student at Harvard in 1974-75, Fierman was awarded a National Defense Foreign Language (NDFL) Fellowship, the pre-cursor to today's Title VI Foreign Language & Area Studies Fellowship, to study Chinese in the context of comparative Soviet and Chinese policies. He received a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellowship to spend 1976-77 at Tashkent State University, researching what was at the time a sensitive topic for the Soviets due to its focus on nationalism and culture in a region that was not ethnically Russian. As he delved into Soviet language policy in Uzbekistan, Fierman received an education in Soviet politics, encountering censorship and bureaucratic roadblocks, even having his notes confiscated by Soviet officials. During the following year, with another NDFL, he utilized Russian and Uzbek language sources while writing his dissertation. Although around 30 U.S. scholars were in the Soviet Union at the time, only a few worked outside of Russia, and Fierman was one of the first U.S. scholars to have done fieldwork in Central Asia. He affirms that he would not be an Uzbek specialist today if not for this important overseas experience.

In 1983, while an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, Fierman returned to Tashkent for three months with the support of a Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Abroad grant. Fierman utilized the skills he had developed during his previous stay. He learned that there was no fact or book he absolutely needed, and that he could always redirect his work by remaining open to opportunities that were presented. And opportunities did present themselves -- often due to his facility with Russian and Uzbek languages and the extent to which such facility is unexpected in an American. For instance, during this time, different visas were required for different cities as a means of limiting surface travel by outsiders. Fierman's visa allowed for travel between four cities within about 50 miles of each other in the Ferghana Valley, but required him to fly to each city through Tashkent. A Ministry of Culture contact was able to provide an alternative, locating officials connected with the provincial cultural offices to accompany Fierman from each city to the next. Such positive contacts with local officials were more the norm than the exception during Fierman's 1983 stay; this particular visit laid the groundwork for his later trips to the region, facilitating contacts, improving his language skills, and providing early insights into the more open pride in national culture that became apparent under Glasnost in the late 1980's.

When asked what these ED fellowships have meant to his career, Fierman describes them as critical. What distinguished him from many Central Asian researchers at the time was his study of and ability to use the language -- central requirements of the Title VI and Fulbright-Hays fellowships. Language knowledge gave him an entrée into the culture that he could not have had without the in-country, foreign language-based research experience. And that experience continues to benefit a new generation of U.S. scholars; it impacts how Fierman advises students, the contacts he utilizes to assist their work, and the guidance he is able to give about working through the still-existent bureaucracy. Just one example of the pipeline's long-term impact is Indiana's new Uzbek summer institute to be held at Samarkand State Institute of Foreign Languages (SSIFL). This will be the first U.S.-sponsored intensive Uzbek language program to be held in-country, facilitated by a mutual regard held by Fierman and the SSIFL rector, stemming back to Fierman's time at Tashkent State and the rector's then-role in the Academy of Sciences. As Fierman is quick to point out, "the fruits are not always apparent immediately," but the pipeline represents an investment with clear returns over time.

In addition to Fierman's research contributions to Central Asian studies, in the years since his two Fulbright-Hays research trips, the Federal government and the public have benefited substantially from his expertise. His work touches the American public through his consultancies for National Geographic, contributions to Colliers Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia Americana, public presentations, and interviews on National Public Radio. He has frequently advised a variety of government organizations, offering seminars for the U.S. Department of State, National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, congressional and embassy personnel; evaluating and developing an annotated listing of Uzbek-language broadcasting by Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America for the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors; and serving as guide/interpreter for a USIA exhibit on "Technology in American Life" in Tashkent. But perhaps his greatest personal contribution to broader U.S. understanding and to government operations is through his work as a Title VI Center Director -- first as Director of the Inner Asian & Uralic National Resource Center (IAUNRC) and now, concurrently, as Director of CeLCAR, the Center for the Languages of the Central Asian Region. It is through these centers that Fierman helps to perpetuate the pipeline, strengthening the nation's resources for teaching about Central Asia and developing future specialists.

Fierman's students credit the support provided by his National Resource Center with their own professional development. Christopher Baker, who hopes to one day work for the government on security issues in Central Asia, notes: "The funding the center awarded me has...really opened up the wide range of expertise IU possesses in Central Asia studies, giving me the opportunity to study languages and to take courses that are offered nowhere else, and that are invaluable for understanding a region critical to U.S. national security."

Baker is correct in noting that IU offers courses that few other American institutions can support. Its extensive array of less commonly taught language offerings is a national treasure, made possible through support from the federal government. In conjunction with the IAUNRC, Indiana regularly offers academic year courses in Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian, Kazakh, Mongolian, Persian/Tajik, Tibetan, Turkish, and Uzbek. Several other languages are offered less frequently, and summer intensive courses, attracting students from across the country, are offered in Hungarian, Tibetan, Azeri, Kazakh, Turkmen, Uzbek, Tajik and Uyghur. Additionally, CelCAR is working to develop proficiency-oriented language courses and materials for Kyrgyz, Pashto, Tajik, Turkmen, Uyghur and Uzbek. The CenAsiaNet Web site provides national access to IU's Web-based instructional materials for Turkic languages. To support advanced study of Kazakh and Uzbek, Fierman and his center are currently establishing summer intensive institutes in Almaty and Samarkand; they are also expanding their use of distance education technology to share Kazakh and Uzbek instruction with other U.S. universities.

Aside from access to less-commonly-taught language instruction, the centers serve as coordination points for Central Asian and Uralic language and area studies, both at IU and nationally. As Director, Fierman has worked tirelessly to expand the centers' focus in order to attract students with diverse academic and career interests. By engaging faculty from across campus, developing an MA certificate program, and redefining FLAS fellowship award procedures, Fierman has provided opportunities for students with non-academic career interests to gain Central Asian expertise that they subsequently apply in jobs with the government, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector. He has expanded exchange relationships, hosting over 70 Central Asian scholars at IU and "sharing" these scholars (e.g. through interactive video) with other US colleges and universities; these arrangements have increased opportunities for U.S. scholars to conduct fieldwork in the region, with over 50 traveling under their auspices to date. Moreover, because the pipeline does not begin with college, Fierman has emphasized developing the IAUNRC's outreach activities, with a special emphasis on preparing K-12 teachers to teach about Central Asia.

The impact of such centers is both concentrated, measured by its graduates and how they apply their area expertise, and diffuse, in terms of those who may never have been exposed to the particular region of the world if not for the center's outreach activities. It is therefore difficult to quantify their value to U.S. national security interests. A greater appreciation of their worth can be inferred from examples such as those provided by the IAUNRC, whose former students hold positions in both the private and public sectors, within the U.S. and abroad. They work as exchange program officers, interpreters and translators, and consultants to corporations with business interests in Central Eurasia. They include in their ranks CIA analysts, World Bank consultants, and a military attache. Moreover, they hold faculty positions across the country, expanding the network that comprises the pipeline and, in turn, becoming actively engaged in area studies through teaching, research, and outreach. They utilize the network of visiting scholar contacts, covering Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. As Larry Held, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Central Asian Regional Training Program Director notes, "The multiplier effect that these relationships have throughout the region is...invaluable. I also rely on this network for feedback from time to time in my own work as these returned scholars have provided input into a number of USAID sponsored training programs..." Former student Erik Herron, an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Associate of the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Kansas, explains that his teaching and research have greatly benefited from association with area studies centers, "But the benefits of area studies centers extend beyond academia."

As an NRC director since 1996, Fierman has re-prioritized his personal interests as an academic in order to respond to Federal priorities for training Central Asian specialists in a variety of disciplines and professional fields. While expanding his center's activities to involve more faculty and students, Fierman has become a lightning rod within his own department -- controversial for his continued emphasis on national needs. This underscores the extent to which the federally-funded pipeline is critical to ensuring the U.S. creates and maintains a supply of scholars who can play the role that Fierman has so aptly maintained. If left to their own devices, most faculty would not voluntarily choose to work outside of their disciplinary fields, engaging actively in outreach to the broader public, working to attract students with diverse career interests into area studies, and (at some institutions) focusing on contemporary issues impacting national security. The promotion and tenure culture, combined with disciplinary divisions, at most of the country's leading research institutions serves as a strong disincentive inhibiting interdisciplinary work -- let alone work that expands beyond research and teaching to incorporate national service. Yet for scholars such as Fierman, the federal funding is a godsend, providing leverage to ensure campus support for and faculty involvement in less commonly taught language and area studies and, ultimately, enabling them to organize those resources in service to national needs.

Web sites:

Inner Asian & Uralic National Resource Center: http://www.indiana.edu/~iaunrc
Center for Languages of the Central Asian Region: http://www.indiana.edu/~celcar/

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Last Modified: 01/21/2011