Contributed by the Office of Marketing and Communication at Marquette University

Marquette sophomore Margaret Plaza in Oman (photo courtesy of Marquette University)

Marquette sophomore Margaret Plaza in Oman (photo courtesy of Marquette University)

When Margaret Plaza signed up to spend much of last summer studying at the University of Nizwa in Oman, her plan was simple: learn the language, experience the culture and return to Marquette to continue her studies in biomedical sciences.

It didn’t work out that way. Spending her days immersed in the study of Arabic, first at Marquette and then in Oman, she fell in love with the language and couldn’t see herself giving it up. “The first thing I did when I got back was switch majors,” says Plaza, a Marquette sophomore and member of the campus-based Golden Eagle Battalion of Army ROTC. “I now want to go into military intelligence, and changing my major to international affairs with a minor in Arabic will help me be successful.”

Plaza’s life-changing experience was part of an ROTC program called Project GO, a Department of Defense initiative aimed at improving the language skills, regional expertise and intercultural communication skills of future military officers. The program not only serves as a gateway for Marquette cadets and midshipmen; the University also serves as a gateway to the program, taking in up to 18 students per year from schools around the United States and preparing them for their time in Oman with a week-long intensive introduction led by professors from Marquette’s Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures.

And Project GO is not the only program that gives Golden Eagle cadets the chance to experience other cultures. Jeff Cooley, a senior majoring in criminology, took advantage of another ROTC offering, the Cultural Understanding and Leadership Program (CULP), to spend three weeks last summer in Senegal, helping local communities on a variety of public assistance projects and joining — even leading — Senegalese cadets on training missions. All told, five Marquette students had ROTC experiences last summer in four countries — Argentina, Mongolia, Oman and Senegal.

Before they are accepted, each Project GO applicant takes the Intercultural Development Inventory assessment, a key test of their readiness for what may lie ahead for them, says Dr. Enaya Othman, assistant professor of languages, literatures and cultures, and Project GO’s academic director at Marquette. “We need to determine if they have a desire and ability to recognize cultural differences and understand why they exist through understanding of the culture,” she says.

With students supplying the empathy and Project GO bringing them into enveloping contact with a foreign country, the program permanently changes students, says Othman. And a key step in preparing them for that transformation is the responsibility of the Arabic program — getting the cadets up to speed through a five-day intensive Arabic language course. Combined with their study in Oman, that’s enough for cadets to return with a “mid-to-high intermediate proficiency, depending on the level they had when they began the study abroad program,” she says.

After that introduction and flights occupying the better part of 24 hours, Plaza arrived at the University of Nizwa near the Al-Hajar Mountains in northern Oman, where she studied Arabic every weekday from 9 to 5. For cadets who will become officers stationed in the Middle East, these language skills will be profound difference-makers, says Lt. Col. Ioannis Kiriazis, professor of military science and chair of Marquette’s Army ROTC. “As I often explain to our cadets, learning a foreign language is like looking through the eyes to the soul of a different culture. Common understanding of a language is one of the most effective ways to build effective communication, and through time, can really be a contributing factor to building trust.”

For Cooley, CULP put less emphasis on language, but offered unique opportunities to engage with Senegalese people and customs, while handing him new opportunities to lead Senegalese military cadets in vehicle search training and other exercises, something he hadn’t yet tackled back home.

Marquette senior Jeff Cooley with colleagues and friends in Senegal (photo courtesy of Marquette University)

Marquette senior Jeff Cooley with colleagues and friends in Senegal (photo courtesy of Marquette University)

Based in the town of Saint-Louis, Cooley alternated these military experiences with service projects such as painting a mural at a children’s shelter, helping to construct a school, and working with Peace Corps volunteers to help local farmers. “We got to interact with local children, playing soccer or teaching them better hygiene,” he recalls. “Their living conditions were horrible, and it was touching to see how grateful they were for everything we did, even though I felt we weren’t really doing that much for them. We didn’t change their whole outlook on life, but the connections we made with those kids were awesome.”

Whether the program is Project GO or CULP, the outcomes are similar, says Kiriazis, who leads Marquette’s ROTC program. “The trips expand their intellectual aperture through interaction with a foreign culture and make our cadets think about the world and appreciate differences in culture. It’s an important part of their development as cadets and as human beings,” he says.

That’s a message that resonates with cadets such as Cooley and Plaza as students at a Catholic, Jesuit university whose mission calls them to use their lives and their military service, whenever possible, to seek peaceful solutions and to improve the lives of others.

“The personal interactions help transform their identity. Acceptance and sensitivity toward other societies are now at their core,” Othman says. “Later in life, they communicate this awareness with others in the military and government and that informs American foreign policy. When working abroad, their cultural competence informs their interactions with non-Americans and facilitates good relations between nations. That will help them avoid errors that result from unfamiliarity with international cultures.”

The beneficiary of this training, Plaza says attending Project GO was one of the best decisions she has ever made. She says, “For anyone who has a chance to go to a different country, explore a new language and culture, I would simply say — do it.”

For students from Marquette University’s Klingler College of Arts and Sciences, ROTC is a gateway to immersion in foreign lands, languages and cultures, offering an understanding of the lives of people overseas that can help them become more effective global leaders.