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Sindelar Weaves Foreign Service into Middle East Class
1/16/2014

Richard SindelarWhile teaching a survey class on the Middle East and North Africa, Richard Sindelar can explain the enormity of Tahrir Square during talks of the Arab Spring in Egypt. He can lend his experience with settlements to a discussion of the Arab Israeli settlements. He has firsthand knowledge because Sindelar was a United States foreign service officer who spent almost half his career covering the Middle East.

Now, as assistant professor in the Center for International Studies at the University of St. Thomas, Sindelar wants his students to gain the practical training they need to be prepared for diplomacy or business, not just the theory. So, instead of writing academic papers for class, Sindelar adopts the role of secretary of state, and students write policy planning papers, addressing issues and recommendations for the secretary to take action — policy papers like he used to write in the foreign service.

“I want anybody who’s in my classes to be able to go into the State Department as a diplomatic officer newly assigned and feel comfortable in meetings,” he said.

Whether it’s diplomacy or business, Sindelar said employers can teach new hires skills for the job, but they look for people with the international education and background needed to carry work overseas. An international studies degree helps students get a foot in the door, and he said it is one of the best degrees to get hired for jobs.

“So much of what happens in the world today has an international component,” Sindelar said. “Almost all the companies in Houston and NGOs in Houston, 80-90 percent of them, if they’re going to hire somebody, they probably have an overseas component.”

Sindelar approaches the study of the Middle East with the hand of a weaver:

“We’ll talk about the threads in the Middle East that they can see and what’s happening now that may go back several centuries,” Sindelar said. “You start with a few threads and over time more and more threads get woven in until you’ve got this entire artistic Persian rug or tapestry.”

There are threads of three great religions, several different empires, threads from the West merging with the Islamic world in the 19th century, threads of nationalism, the rise of Israel and the Zionist influences, all woven together.

“I want them to understand when you look at a current issue, what is it that’s under that issue and driving that issue,” he said.

Nadeen Mustafa and Richard SindelarSindelar often has students of Middle East descent who bring a special perspective  about their homeland to the class. Sindelar said that maintaining objectivity when teaching about a region braided with political agendas is challenging, but he doesn’t shy away from tough topics like jihad.  

“I know I’m a Westerner, and I’m not going to be able to filter out all my Western thinking, but nevertheless, I try to think like a Middle Easterner — a Middle Easterner from the middle, not with a political agenda — and that’s sometimes hard to do.”

Because Houston is an international city, Sindelar said students are exposed to a host of international issues that they might not see in places like Kansas City or an Albuquerque.

“It makes the students more aware of international issues, because they’re surrounded by them,” he said. “You don’t really need to leave the St. Thomas campus. We have such a diverse foreign student body here, from all around the world, whether it’s Asia, or Middle East, Europe or Africa. I think the diversity is an example to them.”

For more information about a degree in international studies, contact Richard Sindelar at sindelh@stthom.edu or 713-525-3819.

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