Prize honors cross-cultural fluency —
an ability key to leadership and success
in today's global world
Multi-layered and flexible ways of thinking
Math major John G. Mikhael ’13 has been awarded the third annual Isabelle de Courtivron Prize by the Center for Bilingual/Bicultural Studies (CB/BS) for his essay, “Lost in Translation.” He received $400 at an awards reception hosted by Foreign Languages & Literatures on April 18, 2013.
The prize, named to honor French Studies Professor Emerita de Courtivron, recognizes “student writing on topics related to immigrant, diaspora, bicultural, bilingual, and/or multi-racial experiences.” A co-founder of CB/BS and former head of the Foreign Languages and Literatures Section, de Courtivron retired in 2010.
“Lost in Translation” explores Mikhael’s experience growing up—first in the United States and then in Lebanon—and his return to the States to study at MIT.
“It’s a wonderful, sophisticated, mixed-genre piece,” says Senior Lecturer Jane Dunphy, director of English Language Studies and head of this year’s prize committee. “The flexibility of Mikhael’s piece reflects the flexibility of thought typical of many of multilingual, multi-cultural undergraduates at MIT.”
Understanding the impact of cultural distinctions
Mikhael says that as an international student at MIT he is often asked about the divide between his Lebanese and American experiences. He saw the annual Isabelle de Courtivron essay contest as an opportunity to put his thoughts on the subject on paper. “I didn’t think I’d win anything. I was really writing for myself,” he says. “Winning was a really nice surprise.”
“We live in a time of globalization, so it could be kind of difficult to understand what the big deal is. What's the difference? We all have Wikipedia and McDonald's and Nikes and iPhones; it's one world. And to a degree, that's true. We do have similar things at our disposal, but as much as we'd like to pretend otherwise, it's hard to deny that our backgrounds largely influence our attitudes and behavior and outlooks on life. And grab two people from opposite sides of the globe, chances are their backgrounds are very, very different.”
“I am an American. Texas. Football. Barbeques. Malls. Denim Jeans. Y'all.
I am Lebanese. Hummus. Dabkeh. Mountains. Football (the other one).
Gibran Kahlil. Weird throat sounds. I think they're called velar fricatives.”
— from “Lost in Translation” by John G. Mikhael ’13
The role of writing and open-ended exporation
Mikhael plans to pursue a career in medical research and is spending this semester working at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT as part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. He credits MIT’s strong requirements in humanities, arts, and social sciences with teaching him to enjoy the open-ended, creative process of writing.
“When I was in high school it was really a burden for me to write,” he says. At MIT, he found that writing an essay can be a creative endeavor. “[Writing has] turned into something I enjoy, and the biggest evidence of that is that I wrote this,” he says. “I thought it was a good way to spend my weekend.”
Entries from Manga to an epic poem
This year’s entries for the de Courtivron Prize ran the gamut from a visually beautiful Manga-style piece to an epic poem about the African-American experience. In many submissions, MIT’s bicultural students paid tribute to the sacrifices their parents made to enable them to pursue their dreams. But of all these, Dunphy says Mikhael’s essay stood out for its maturity.
“I liked it because it was very confident, not self-conscious,” she says. “I loved his extended conversations done in dialogue and the humor that goes all the way through it. … It’s really remarkable.”
In addition to Dunphy, this year’s Isabelle de Courtivron Prize Selection Committee members were: A.C. Kemp, lecturer in foreign languages; Kym Ragusa, lecturer in Comparative Media Studies/Writing; and Arundhati Banerjee, director of Global Initiatives.
Lost in Translation | essay by John G. Mikhael
MIT Center for Bilingual/Bicultural Studies
Foreign Languages and Literatures
Inventing Our Future: Diversity at MIT
The Benefits of Bilingualism | New York Times
"Speaking two languages rather than just one has obvious practical benefits in an increasingly globalized world. But in recent years, scientists have begun to show that the advantages of bilingualism are even more fundamental than being able to converse with a wider range of people. Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter."
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Senior Writer: Kathryn O'Neill
Photograph of John G. Mikhael: Andrea Wirth