Margaret Plaza (photo by Marquette University)

When Margaret Plaza signed up to spend much of a recent summer studying at the University of Nizwa in Oman, her plan was simple: learn the language, experience the culture, and return to Marquette University 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, former member of the campus-based Golden Eagle Battalion of Army ROTC.

The 2020 graduate of Marquette’s Klingler College of Arts and Sciences wanted to get into military intelligence: changing her major to international affairs helped her pursue that goal.

Plaza’s life-changing experience was part of an ROTC program called Project Global Officer (GO), a U.S. 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, by taking in up to 18 students per year from schools around the United States, and preparing them for their time in Oman through a weeklong intensive introduction led by professors from Marquette’s Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures.

All told, seven Marquette students had ROTC experiences last summer in two countries: Oman and Taiwan. 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 [their] 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. For students headed for Oman, a key step in preparing them for that transformation is 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,” Othman 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 9AM to 5PM. For cadets who will become officers stationed in the Middle East, these language skills will be profound difference-makers.

“Learning languages is imperative to establishing relationships with allies and our host nations. Moreover, language learning is essential to developing cultural awareness and intellect while serving overseas in the military,” says Lt. Col. Joshua Mayer, professor of military science and chair of Marquette’s Army ROTC. “Students who participate in Project GO have the opportunity to expand their language and intercultural communication skills, while [developing] a unique ability to support our national defense strategic efforts.”

That’s a message that resonated with Cadet Plaza during her time at Marquette, whose Catholic, Jesuit mission calls ROTC students 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.”

Plaza says that participating in 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, 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.

Contributed by the Office of University Relations at Marquette University.