When VMI Arabic professor Mohamed Taifi walks into his classroom, his personal warmth and his enthusiasm for his subject begin a process that leads to much more than explanations of grammar and lessons in deciphering an unfamiliar script.
Taifi nurtures a relationship that helps cadets in these small classes master what can be a difficult language to learn and gain new understandings about a culture many will experience in their future careers.
"The many questions after class show their curiosity," said Taifi.
Taifi, who also speaks fluent French, brings the culture of his native Morocco into the classroom with him, often aiding conversations with gesture and metaphor. "I have to be an actor," he said. His dramatic presentation encourages connection with his students.
And so do the jokes they tell, in Arabic, around the Arabic table Taifi and his colleagues lead in the dining hall. There, the conversation may shift back to English and again to Arabic as professors and cadets share experiences from time spent abroad and discuss cultural issues.
The connection Taifi forms with cadets is a lasting one. Most cadets who begin studying the Arabic language proceed through all four levels of study offered by VMI and continue to correspond with Taifi, often in Arabic, after they graduate. Many also participate in the summer home-stay study-abroad program in Morocco Taifi directs. Some go twice.
The students stay with Moroccan families and take classes four hours a day at the Central Arabic Language Institute in Fez. Some participate in community service projects while there as part of another VMI program. Taifi takes the cadets on weekend trips to the imperial cities and spends a weekend with them in the desert.
When they return, the cadets skip two semesters of Arabic. And they find their lives change as misconceptions about Arabic cultures fall away.
"Students look up to me as a role model," said Taifi, who writes articles in Arabic and novels in French. "I write, I travel, I like to experience new things."
He shares this interest with cadets, inviting them to sample Moroccan food in meals at his house and encouraging language acquisition and culture education through role playing exercises in the classroom.
And in his classroom, any kind of question is welcome.
"If you have enough experience, then you predict their difficulties," said Taifi, "and teach accordingly. When we love a job, then we do it with pleasure. I know VMI cadets will do their best."