Student Trade-offs = SAIS Identity Loss?

By Nikole Otolia

October 25, 2019

WASHINGTON, D.C. — While much attention has been paid to SAIS’s future move to 555 Pennsylvania Ave., word on the street is that changes may be coming to SAIS’s language department as soon as the next academic year. The SAIS Observer reached out to the SAIS administration, current faculty members and five MA students to gain a better understanding of the SAIS language department and what it means to the SAIS community.

As a part of the SAIS experience since 1943, the language department has expanded over the years to offer instruction in 17 languages. One of the SAIS language program’s unique qualities compared to other top international relations graduate institutions is that the language staff is trained to teach students IR-specific terms in a graduate school setting. As the joke goes, SAIS students learn how to negotiate for nuclear nonproliferation in their target language, but at the same time may have no idea how to order a sandwich in that language. Is this part of the SAIS experience and identity to be shrunk or altered in the coming years?

Speaking to the SAIS Observer, Vice Dean Filipe Campante of Academic Affairs offered a window into the discussion taking place in the upper echelons of the SAIS administration. “We at Academic Affairs are currently engaged in a review of the Language Program…We are thus focused on how we can continue offering a vibrant language program, which requires allocating our resources in line with the needs of students as conveyed by their interest and enrollment, as well as thinking creatively about how to provide the best instruction,” he said.

The statement highlights the role that students play in shaping their education at SAIS by signaling their interest in foreign language instruction through their enrollment in language classes. This prompts consideration, however, of a problem that has been a topic of discussion at SAIS for years. Several sources confirmed that for decades, SAIS students have had to balance the plethora of internship opportunities afforded to them by the city of Washington D.C. with taking advantage of the foreign language instruction at SAIS. Language classes tend to be scheduled for earlier in the day and are typically not offered in the evenings, making it difficult to coordinate with the usual 10-15 hours per week that internships generally require. Thus, many students feel they must make a choice between furthering their foreign language education and pursuing an internship that could make all the difference in their job hunt. Especially once a student is past the point of proficiency in their target language, it may become increasingly difficult to justify choosing in favor of language training.

The SAIS Observer spoke with five SAIS second-year students from different concentrations about whether the SAIS Language Program factored into their decision to come to SAIS and if they have faced the internship-language trade-off. Matt Serrone, a Strategic Studies concentrator, shared that he initially came to SAIS hoping to take a class focused on economics and national security in German, a language he has studied on and off for 13 years. After testing out of proficiency in German last September, Serrone was told that SAIS does not offer a post-proficiency German class and he would have to go to Georgetown for more advanced instruction. “I [actually] had gone to Georgetown undergrad and I really enjoyed their [language] program…there were graduate students in the program, but I thought that while I was in graduate school, I wanted a program that was specifically targeted towards graduate students and their specific concentrations,” Serrone told the Observer. Although he was not able to continue with German, Serrone decided to pick a new language to focus on while at SAIS, and he settled on Russian. One year later, he is currently in Russian Mid I with hopes of taking the Russian proficiency exam in May; however, he maintains that he would have taken Advanced German if SAIS had the ability to offer it.

Another student taking full advantage of the SAIS Language Program is Sarah Aver, a Tsinghua-SAIS dual degree student looking to graduate this December. While at SAIS, Aver made the decision to focus on her Chinese language training during the semester and intern over the summer. “I am adding a very unique skill…once you’re good enough in Chinese or any language it’s something that makes a difference in a job market.” She also added that while she has taken many Chinese classes throughout her life in different institutes and countries, “The one at SAIS is probably one of the best I’ve ever taken. You are only 3 or 4 in the class, they are very flexible and in terms of quality and improvement of skills, it’s definitely the best class I’ve ever taken.”

While Aver and Serrone expect to use their language skills in their future careers, Lujia Yang, another Tsinghua-SAIS dual degree student, explained that knowledge of a second foreign language doesn’t matter as much in the field she wants to enter. This is the major reason why she has not continued her study of French, as she had originally planned to do at SAIS, so that she can focus on internships and job hunting. “It really depends on the industry [someone wants to work in.]”

Gricelda Ramos, a Latin American Studies concentrator, agrees—but for different reasons. While the SAIS language program did factor into Ramos’s decision to come to SAIS, she commented that her view has shifted as she gets closer to graduating. As she explained, “I have always prioritized language learning, but my future career in the Foreign Service will provide language learning opportunities; therefore, I took the decision to spend my second year at SAIS interning.” Likewise, Chris Merriman, an African Studies concentrator, voiced a similar experience. He said, “I wanted to take advantage and learn a new language [Arabic] last year…but I do think that this year the trade-off for me was higher for the internship because I feel that it was providing more value for me in terms of my future career than taking an extra semester of Arabic.”

Each student at SAIS has a language story: how many languages they spoke before SAIS, the language in which they take their proficiency exam, and the languages they hope to improve or begin to learn while at SAIS. Each person’s story is different, but all must go through the language department to graduate. Whether they choose to test out of proficiency their first semester in order to focus solely on internships or to take full advantage of the languages offered at SAIS is a personal decision in which each student must consider their goals and weigh the opportunity costs. 

One thing is certain: SAIS stands out among other IR graduate school programs, with its multifaceted curriculum that requires economics, regional studies and policy concentrations, a diverse language program, and its location in the heart of Washington, D.C. As Dean Campante shared with the Observer, “We do understand that it is something that our students and alumni value, and that we, as an institution, believe is an important part of a top-notch education in international affairs.”

SAIS has always focused on giving students world-class training in economics and languages, both of which are key parts of the school’s identity and comparative advantage. As SAIS celebrates its 75th anniversary, acknowledgment of what has made SAIS a leader in advanced international studies is more appropriate than ever.