Graduating seniors Isaiah Curtis and Olivia Houston will be the student speakers for the 2017 SGIS convocation ceremony, being held Friday, May 5 at the Global and International Studies building.
“I remember sitting around the table and trying to understand my grandmother in Tajikistan speak Russian to me, and Tajik, and Persian.”
She wasn’t—technically speaking—Isaiah Curtis’s grandmother. Curtis, who will be giving a convocation speech Friday, was spending the summer of 2016 with a family in Dushanbe, Tajikistan on a federally-funded critical language scholarship. The conversation wasn’t exactly flowing, the SGIS senior recalls, but it was utterly meaningful.
“I was able to sputter out some words to her in Persian, and she understood. And I thought, that’s it, if I only came to Tajikistan, just to be able to make this connection and get to know this woman, then it’s all worth it to me, just to be able to hear some of her stories.”
Curtis had come a long way to make that connection. Graduating this spring with a double major in Central Eurasian Studies (Persian Language Track), Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (Arabic Language Track) and a Certificate in Islamic Studies, Curtis had grown up in the small town of Whiteland, Indiana, where “the majority of people are Christian and have never met a Muslim before in their life.”
In Dushanbe, by contrast, Curtis experienced full immersion not only in several languages, but in Muslim culture—and during a month-long religious observance, no less.
“I was there during Ramadan,” he explains. So there weren’t a lot of people in the streets during the day—when Curtis explored the city after language class—nor many eateries open. “As a white male who sometimes wore shorts, and didn’t shave a whole lot, I got a lot of stares. But people there are so friendly; they care about taking care of guests and your well-being. I’d go back there in a heartbeat.”
Curtis hasn’t always been a globetrotter. Before coming to SGIS, Curtis admits, “I didn’t know a whole lot about the world.” The fifth of six children growing up in a family of limited means, Curtis is the first to have attended college. Studying French and Spanish in high school was the game changer.
“The biggest motivator for me to go to college was my love of languages, and I knew that I couldn’t learn languages on my own, or in Whiteland, Indiana,” Curtis realized. “So I applied to IU, and only to IU. I knew that IU offered a ridiculous amount of languages, and I knew that this could really be a place where I could move around and reach my full potential.”
Growing up in the post-09/11 era, Curtis had a sense of the inadequacy of most media representations of the Middle East and its peoples. “And so I took an Arabic class,” he explains, “and once I took that class I fell in love immediately with learning more about the religion, culture, and the people who speak Arabic. Because they’re just people, just like us.”
Curtis’s pursuit of that affinity led to an Islamic Studies research scholarship, during which he translated the work of the Persian poets Hafiz and Ferdowsi, under the guidance of Professor Paul Losensky. And to his CEUS honors thesis, on Kurdish nationalism in poetry. And his work as a volunteer Arabic tutor. The languages have been a through-line.
“I love languages because I’m able to speak with more people in their language instead of expecting them to speak mine,” Curtis says. “I feel like if I really want change, it has to be on the human-to-human basis by connecting with people individually.”
After graduation, Curtis will be interning at Luna Language Services. The Indianapolis-based business provides translation and interpretation services for government, corporate, and non-profit clients. He hopes to attend grad school in the fall of 2018, and focus on Iraqi Kurdistan. He’s been taking Kurdish for a year.
“After my time here at SGIS, I feel more prepared to interact with people who follow different faiths and speak different languages and come from different cultural backgrounds, and that’s something I’m really thankful for.”
“I always joke that I’m a Slytherin but in the best possible way,” laughs graduating senior Olivia Houston, “I want to use my cunning and my resourcefulness for the benefit of others.” Slytherin, it bears noting, is not one of the regions in which one can specialize at SGIS, but one of the four houses at Hogwarts, from Harry Potter.
A region Houston has focused on, however, is France. The second speaker at Friday’s SGIS convocation ceremony spent her junior year in Aix-en-Provence and is graduating with a Certificate in Global French. That’s on top of a Bachelor of Science in International Studies, a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, and a Minor in Economics.
Houston’s International Studies major has been on the Diplomacy, Security, and Governance track. The Harry Potter allusion is Houston’s playful way of co-opting preconceptions about an institutional approach to global challenges. Slytherins are known for their cunning, resourcefulness, and ambition.
“I’m of the mind that you have to work within the system you have to improve it,” she claims.
She collapses the distinction between the policy-based strategy she favors and the change one might make on what Curtis calls a “human-to-human basis” through language and culture. The beauty of the international studies degree at SGIS, Houston says, is its validation of diverse avenues to diplomacy.
“You have people from all the different concentrations in your classes and you’re better off for it,” Houston asserts. “My approach to a problem is different from someone who studies global health and biology, but we’re all discussing food aid to refugees. [The considerations might be] nutrition versus logistics of transportation and viability, but we all have the same values. The variety allows us to realize and expand what we previously came in for, and shape it. And because of that we have a more complete conversation about very important topics.”
Houston’s family moved to Bloomington she was 12. She’d always seen herself going into law, but an AP European History class in high school convinced her that she would be taking her future law degree in an international direction. Applying to International Studies programs at universities as a high school senior, Houston remembers the day she saw the announcement for SGIS and the architect’s rendering of the school’s future home on the front page of the Bloomington Herald-Times. “And I said ‘done,’” she recalls.
Houston was one of only 15 Direct Admit Scholars in 2013 (by contrast, 139 have committed for Fall 2017). The Direct Admit scholarship, along with another from the Hutton Honors College, swayed her to attend SGIS. With plans to attend law school, she wanted to keep college costs down. But she had another incentive to limit spending: “I knew I wanted to go abroad junior year,” she says, “Going [elsewhere] I wouldn’t have been able to afford to study abroad, but here I could.”
Twice, in fact. Houston spent the summer after freshman year in London, studying international relations and political theory for six weeks at the London School of Economics and Political Science. During the 2015-16 academic year, Houston focused on international relations and furthered her proficiency in French at Sciences-Po-Aix.
“The university recognizes the personal enrichment that you get from studying abroad, so something like one in three and a half of us [do that],” Houston notes. “The opportunities afforded to me through IU and SGIS that are just kind of unrepresented elsewhere—you don’t realize through a state school that you have these opportunities.”
During an undergraduate career that has tracked with a building period for SGIS, Houston has contributed to efforts creating the student ambassador program and the dean’s student advisory board (GS7). As the President of Sigma Iota Rho, the International Affairs Honor Society, she has been involved in discussions to refine the International Studies major. She has taken initiatives to connect American and international students as President of the International Studies Undergraduate Association.
In the fall, Houston will be entering Notre Dame Law School, where she plans to pursue her passion for human rights.
“I’m so blessed that I’ve been able to come to these academic institutions,” she says. “I can turn it around and use what I’ve been blessed with to help other people.”
It’s the prevailing sentiment at SGIS, according to Houston. “We’re all here for the right reasons,” she avers. “I have yet to meet someone who’s here specifically for the purposes of self-advancement or job security. We all have this intrinsic sense of obligation to pay it forward. We’re all vehicles for further betterment.”