Ryan Folio ‘12 is an alumnus of Boston College’s Islamic Civilizations & Societies Program. He graduated with a double major in ICS and Economics. Currently completing a Master’s degree in Arab Studies at Georgetown University, Folio plans to attend law school to explore his interests in international law and public service.
Toward the end of his senior year at BC, Folio was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to conduct research in Amman, Jordan. So, after graduating, he was able to study Arabic at the Qasid Institute and complete a research project on a controversial amendment to Jordan’s Press and Publication's law. During his Fulbright year, he also founded a website that published English translations of op-eds from Jordanian newspapers.
At BC, Folio’s main academic interests were media and freedom of expression. He attributes his interest in the latter to his participation in collegiate debate as a member of the Fulton Debating Society. “In debate rounds, I learned that rational discourse can help societies to solve their most vexing problems,” he says.
The ICS Program allowed Folio to pursue these interests further and apply his learning to the Middle East in particular. He says he developed a close interest in “the ways that citizens of Middle Eastern states transcend various obstacles to express themselves and dialogue with one another about the issues that they find important.”
Through his years of undergraduate study, Folio’s understanding of the Middle East changed significantly. He cites Professor Ali Banuazizi's Intellectuals and Politics in the Middle East class and Professor Kathleen Bailey’s thesis seminar as especially influential courses. “In both cases, the professors and students challenged my ideas about the region in really productive ways,” he says.
His senior thesis, “Syrian Media in Uprising: Discourse and Power under the Assad Regimes,” discussed the rhetorical strategies of the Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad regimes in times of crisis. As part of his research, he analyzed Arabic source material that he translated in Syria in 2010 and Lebanon in 2011. His summer in Syria was funded by a Boston College Advanced Study Grant and his summer in Lebanon was funded by an ACC/IAC grant for thesis research. Both are available to current ICS students.
Folio’s knowledge of Arabic was developed through classes at BC, but his first encounter with the language came from a chance event. When Folio was still in high school, a member of his family’s church asked him if he would accompany hymns for Arabic-language services on the piano. He immediately said yes, and didn’t worry too much about preparation. The day before the next service, he looked at the music for the first time and got a shock. “It did not take me a long time to realize that procrastinating was a mistake. The music was written from right-to-left!”
Suitably humbled, he wasn’t discouraged. “I stumbled through the hymns the next day, but the churchgoers graciously invited me back to play on successive Sundays. I developed my interest in the Middle East and the Arabic language on the job, talking with congregants and listening to the pastor's sermons. I eventually asked the pastor if he would tutor me in the Arabic language and he went on to start an entire class.”
After more than five years of study, Folio is now fluent in Modern Standard Arabic and conversant in Levantine dialect. He says that this knowledge has been helpful both professionally and personally. “As a researcher, it has allowed me to access a wide range of source material that would have otherwise been beyond my reach, from interviews to news articles. In my personal life, I have been able to connect with Arabic language-speakers on another level.”
His advice to students who are interested in the Middle East is straightforward: “Take Arabic language study very seriously. First, doing your homework and attending class is not enough to reach fluency. A student should travel as extensively as possible in the region and should rely heavily on personal initiative. Read and translate newspaper articles, watch YouTube videos, and even talk to yourself in the language. BC has wonderful grants to support you in your studies. Second, do not be pusillanimous when you have opportunities to engage with Arabic speakers. You will have to be bad at the language before getting good at it. Embarrassing mistakes often make for great stories anyway.”