Just before graduating from Pomona, Alexandra “Zan” Gutowski ’13 learned she’d gotten a great opportunity to immerse herself in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies, two of her biggest interests. Since this past September, Gutowski has been a student at a university in Qatar, doing intensive study of Arabic to master her language skills and prepare for a career in foreign policy.
TAKING ON A CHALLENGE Gutowski studied the language for several years in college and even spent some time in the Middle East while she was a student at Pomona, including a semester in Jordan during her junior year. “In Jordan I learned how to conduct my life in Arabic. I could negotiate my rent, get around the city, and attend college classes.”
But her interactions with people from local communities, including a volunteer project with refugees from Syria and Iraq, inspired her to take her learning even further. “In conversations with these young refugee women, my Arabic was good enough to understand them, but not strong enough to say something meaningful back,” Gutowski says. “That’s when I realized I wanted to push my Arabic much further.”
Hoping to become a more skillful speaker, Gutowski made plans to enroll in an Arabic program after graduation. Part of her goal was to gain an edge in Middle Eastern affairs, the field she hopes to enter.“There’s a level of nuance I want to reach in the language,” says Gutowski. “Sure I want to understand things, but that’s something Google Translator can do for you. I want to dig deeper into tone, diction, and syntax, to understand what is being said beyond mere translation.”With the help of some of the staff at Pomona’s Career Development Office, Gutowski applied to the Qatar Scholarship, a year-long program sponsored by Georgetown which allows college graduates from the United States to study Arabic at Qatar University in Doha, the country’s capital. Her acceptance letter came just in time for Commencement.
LEARNING ON THE GROUND
Living and studying with a very international group of students, Gutowski says she’s started to make some exciting progress since arriving last fall. “What’s great is that I’m getting to the point where I’m learning about other things using this language. I can turn on the news or pick up an article, and really understand the bulk of it.”“This is a big breakthrough for me,” she says. “It’s getting fun now.”Outside of class, Gutowski spends a lot of her free time with friends and classmates exploring what the city has to offer, including museum exhibits, lectures and film festivals.
Gutowski says that her experiences in the Middle East so far have opened her eyes to the complexities of the region.
Meeting people from many different countries and having to find her way in an unfamiliar place has been a challenge, but also a cause for growth.“Coming to Doha was a good experience. It woke me up to the fact that I don’t know everything and there’s so much that I have to learn.”
SHAPING HER PATH
An international relations major, Gutowski says she’s always been drawn to public service. But her classes at Pomona were what stoked her passion for foreign affairs. She points to Professor David Elliott as a key influence. “I’m truly indebted to him, not just for shaping me into someone who could pursue foreign policy as a career but as someone who always wants to keep learning.”
Going forward, Gutowski wants to focus on national security issues and Middle Eastern politics. After her scholarship ends in June, she hopes to find work with a research institute or a branch of government like the State Department. She’s already taken a first step by landing an internship this spring as a foreign policy researcher at the Brookings Doha Center, the Qatar-based branch of the well-known Washington think tank. Still, Gutowski says her time in Doha has given her a broader perspective on the path she wants to take in the future.
“Especially in the first year out of college, people feel like they have to have everything figured out,” she says. “In this program I’ve met people who are all in different stages of their lives. I’ve realized that it takes awhile to get to where you want. It might not happen right away.”