Major: Political Science and French
Hometown: Getzville, NY
Awards: 2013 Fulbright Scholarship finalist and 2011 Critical Language Scholarship
My main interests and my major don’t exactly line up perfectly, so I’ve had a lot of professors be very helpful in all the classes I’ve taken over the years and very supportive of me kind of paddling and doing as much as I can in my time as an undergraduate.
Midway through the first semester of her freshman year, Jill Ricotta was enthralled by her Middle Eastern Politics class. She vowed to learn all she could about the Middle East and started making plans to visit the region as early and as often as she could.
Within a few years, she had made three trips to the Middle East in a time when change was in the air. Thanks in part to a prestigious Critical Language Scholarship, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, Ricotta taught English for six weeks in pre-revolution Egypt, studied for eight weeks in post-revolution Tunisia and spent an entire semester at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco.
“Every time I came back from the region, I would go through this week of being happy to be in Buffalo and then I would instantly want to go back,” Ricotta said.
Ricotta came to UB from a very small, all-girls prep school in Buffalo, where she developed an interest in international news, particularly anything relating to the Middle East.
“I don’t know, I think I’ve just always been fascinated by the desert and the camels and the stereotypes of it,” she said. “But then I became really interested in the region and not just because it was one of the hot-topic issues. I took pretty much any class I could get my hands on that had anything to do with the Middle East.”
That included learning Arabic, which she started taking as a sophomore at UB. Although it’s not a major at UB, Ricotta immersed herself in this new language and in her junior year was accepted into the Critical Language Scholarship Program. These scholarships are aimed at expanding the number of American students studying and mastering foreign languages that aren’t commonly studied through intensive eight-week programs in countries such as Bangladesh, China, Jordan, Korea and Turkey.
“I spent eight weeks in Tunisia studying Arabic, which was of course very insane because it was post-revolutionary Tunisia,” Ricotta said. “It was about six months after [Prime Minister Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali left. It was fascinating because we had a lot of access to people that we wouldn’t have had access to previously. We had the head of the cabinet come speak to us. We had the personal advisor to the president speak to us. We also went to a concert and met with the rapper who penned the anthem of the Tunisian revolution, which was pretty cool.
“It was so dynamic. Every day we were doing something new, meeting someone new, going on trips around Tunisia and of course lots and lots of Arabic. It was a great opportunity and it was all completely paid for. So, for students who couldn’t finance a program like that by themselves, it is a great opportunity for people who wouldn’t otherwise do something like that.”
The previous summer, Ricotta spent in Cairo teaching English and getting lessons in Egyptian Arabic. The trip was her first time outside of the U.S. (except for jaunts across the border to Canada).
“It was kind of an overwhelming experience. Cairo is a very tense city,” she said. “My first day walking around Cairo was huge culture shock. But then after a couple of days, I adjusted to how huge and very crowded it is. But it ended up being an amazing experience.”
In the fall of her senior year, shortly after returning from Tunisia, Ricotta headed off to Morocco, where she studied both French and Arabic. A double major in political science and French, Jill’s professors strongly encouraged her pursuit of Arab studies.
“A lot of the French professors have been very supportive of my interest in the Arab world. I don’t think I could have had a bigger cheerleader for my going to Morocco than Professor Jameson—she was so excited.”
Ricotta likes to point out that she didn’t have to go to a small school to have good access to her professors. She’s had dinner at the home of her Arabic professor, Issa Roustum, at least three times. At the Organization of Arab Students’ Arab Night, she joined him at his table talking with his friends. “I don’t think you can get a better professor-student relationship. I just don’t think people think about that kind of thing happening at a state school.”
“I always knew I wanted to take the four years being an undergraduate and do as much as possible with them. I think I’ve done that.”