Language Spotlight: Aaron Shew on Language Learning and Career Opportunities

Headshot of Aaron ShewAaron M. Shew is an Assistant Professor and REL Wilson Endowed Chair of Agricultural Economics at Arkansas State University. He received the Young Scholars Award from the International Rice Research Institute in 2018 and the Young Alumni Award from Middle Tennessee State University in 2019.

Professor Shew has participated in several language programs from AIIS through the years including 2009 and 2010 Summer Language Fellowships for studying Urdu in Lucknow through the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program and Summer and Year-Long Fellowships for studying Hindi in Jaipur through AIIS.

In this language spotlight, he shares with us what brought him to the study of Urdu and Hindi, how these language learning experiences helped to shape his scholarship, and about the importance of language immersion programs.

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Studying Urdu during the summers between sophomore-junior and junior-senior year was pivotal in furthering my interests in South Asia and international development. After completing my undergraduate degrees in Global Studies and International Relations, I was offered a job with an NGO working on agricultural development issues in the Kurdish Region of Northern Iraq and in Northern Afghanistan. I spent a little less than two years working on projects in both countries, and translators in both cases were pretty limited. My Urdu skills were especially useful in Mazar-i-Sharif given the many cognates with Dari, and we contracted companies from Pakistan to assist with construction projects for agricultural milling, so Urdu was of course helpful in those situations.

Two years on the ground in challenging environments was taxing, so I decided to pursue graduate school in an interdisciplinary program called Environmental Dynamics at the University of Arkansas. I completed master’s degrees in geography and agricultural economics en route to my doctorate. My interest in South Asian studies remained strong and I decided to complete my master’s thesis on droughts and staple crop production in India, primarily in the Indo-Gangetic Plains. I applied for the introductory summer language program and the academic year Hindi language fellowship to gain more experience in country, and ended up in Jaipur studying Hindi with AIIS for the summer of 2014 and the academic year of 2014-2015.

Aaron shew in a field with research subject

I later completed my master’s thesis and moved on to dissertation work in coastal Bangladesh where USAID was working on sustainable agricultural intensification in the polder (embanked river island) regions. Though not directly related to Hindi or Urdu, my dissertation work was certainly informed by my experiences with AIIS.

What made you to want to study Urdu and Hindi?

My family participated in an international student program as a host family when I was in middle and high school. We hosted one Indian student, followed by his two younger brothers. Over the years we became very close, such that we treated one another like family. This naturally sparked my interest in learning about Indian culture and specifically in Hindi, if for no other reason at the time than to say “bhaiya” correctly. My curiosity and interest in South Asia remained strong, even while opportunities took me to other regions of the world like Thailand, Morocco, and Turkey. Opportunities to study Hindi were limited where I lived and went to school, so I took advantage of Arabic. From Arabic, I made the link to the Urdu CLS program, in part because I was interested in the Kashmir situation at the time. My interest in both Hindi and Urdu has not been so linear. I found opportunities and jumped at them when I could. I’ll always treasure the time I had to focus on language learning and people — it is much harder to come by now!

How did your language training with AIIS help support your research and future academic career plans?

While I was in Jaipur as a graduate student, I conducted a survey about agricultural technology and consumers, which became my first peer-reviewed publication. Most of my research evolved from mixed to more quantitative methods in my graduate program, and I would say the language training at AIIS helped connect me to people on the ground in ways I never would have imagined. Data and analysis are important, but nuance and individual perspectives and experience are vital. They provide critical context for the applications of my agricultural research.

Aaron shew with crowd in Bangladesh

AIIS gave me such a wonderful opportunity to learn from people — to inform my research, address my questions, and generate new questions. As strange as it may sound, I found it challenging to explore and expand my research creativity while taking courses in the US. I was gaining skills to be sure, but I didn’t feel like mental space and time were available. The Hindi program allowed me to focus on one skill and created space to develop my research ideas in new and creative ways I might not have otherwise.

I ended up conducting most of my dissertation research in Bangladesh, and although I didn’t learn Bangla, the immersion into South Asian culture from AIIS Urdu and Hindi programs helped me find ways to communicate and conduct research. My international experiences generally, and AIIS specifically, contributed to a solid foundation for cross-cultural research and work, one where a posture of learning created opportunities for success, even if success wasn’t what I imagined it to be on the front end. I suppose that is a major finding from my experience with AIIS — that it is OK, even positive and beneficial for my plans, goals, and interests to remain malleable as I gained new insights on the ground. That is in fact the point — to change rather than merely affirming one’s initial presumptions.

It seems like your academic training is very diverse! From your experience, what do immersive language programs like AIIS provide for students even if they plan to change career paths after their programs?

Aaron Shew outside with calfGreat question — my path has NOT been linear or formulaic to say the least. Related to my response about research, I think immersive language programs like AIIS create excellent pathways to explore one’s interests and provide space to change. Career paths are often pitched in ways that allow for little flexibility and follow step-by-step rules for success, which just isn’t reality for most people. I think immersion gives one experiences that go far beyond linguistic training that might help you meet a career or academic goal. Learning a language via immersion is as much about allowing yourself to change as it is learning the skill itself. While my Hindi (and especially Urdu) language skills are rusty now, the interpersonal and cross-cultural experiences I gained still play a strong role in who I am now, the types of research questions I’m interested in, and how I approach my research and career. I think immersion made me more of an opportunist — I see success as opportunity to be creative and explore rather than a defined process toward success. Beyond that, I made great friends from all over the world that I remain in touch with. Some are using their linguistic and cultural skills heavily, and others not so much. But I think most have found success in their own way and AIIS likely played a role in developing who they are.

Any other general comments about your experience with AIIS?

The instructors and staff are absolutely amazing. I miss our daily lunches at the institute and seriously wish I could recreate this here. Maybe one day I’ll dive back into another stint with AIIS to re-hone my language skills for another project.