The written Arabic language is like reading sheet music for Timothy Miles, and the culture of the Middle East has a bittersweet resonance for the 2019 Outstanding Senior of the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

Miles, a religion and culture major, uses this complicated mix of perceptions — the joy of a complex language and the sadness he feels for Middle Eastern conflicts and the role the West has played in places such as Yemen and Syria — to plan his future.

In September, Miles, an honors student with a passion for musical theater, is putting his long-term goal into action. He will serve with the Peace Corps as a youth-in-development specialist in Morocco. For two years, he will work with women-empowerment initiatives through education and community outreach.

“I have always felt like my purpose in life was to help others,” said Miles, who has dreamed of being in the Peace Corps since he was 14. “I think about how the West has affected the rest of the world and I just want to do my part to help undo part of the damage. I don’t know what that looks like, but the Peace Corps is an amazing place to start to address some of these things.”

The rest of his life plan includes, he hopes, working at an embassy as a U.S. Foreign Service officer and earning a law degree and a doctorate in anthropology. His ultimate goal is to work for the United Nations Higher Council on Refugees.

But his desire to delve into Middle Eastern cultures stems from his undergraduate research centered on the intersection of Christianity and sexuality in Appalachia. This work inadvertently helped him discover a passion for Middle East studies.

Miles had been intending to study Hebrew to prepare for a potential Honors College fellowship involving a pilgrimage in Israel on the Jesus Trail, a 65-kilometer hiking route around the Sea of Galilee that traces the areas of Jesus’ life and ministries. That semester, however, the department did not offer that language. So a mentor of his — Rachel Scott, an associate professor of Islamic studies — suggested he take Arabic, another key language spoken in the area.

“When I took the Arabic class, it was the moment,” Miles said. “I realized, this is it! I loved learning the language, so I took the culture classes, and they were so interesting.”

Although the Israel project did not happen, Miles participated in Virginia Tech’s study abroad program in Oman, which solidified his interest.

Miles had begun his studies at Virginia Tech as a math major, but during orientation, he met Brian Britt, then the chair of the Department of Religion and Culture. Britt convinced Miles to do a double major.

“When he first wrote to me in 2015, Timothy made it clear he wanted to be a math major and might only minor with us,” Britt said. “But he was so thoughtful and serious about his education that I hoped his interest in our department might become stronger. I got the feeling that his visit to ‘historic Lane Hall,’ as I had described it, helped him make up his mind. We’re grateful he chose to develop and share his amazing talents with us.”

Miles eventually decided to major in religion and culture, with minors in Arabic and Middle East studies.

Aaron Ansell, an associate professor of religion and culture who nominated Miles for the Outstanding Senior Award, remembers how his student would handle exams.

“He would answer the test questions very economically and then go on to reframe the question to push beyond of what I had laid out in lectures,” Ansell said. “I think he steered these little essays in a different direction just to make the exercise of writing them more interesting.”

Miles took three of Ansell’s classes, including a graduate-survey-level course and his course on ethnography, as well as two independent studies and two semesters of undergraduate research toward his thesis project. He was also a peer mentor for Ansell’s introductory course and a research assistant on two projects.

For Miles’ honor thesis, he researched the intersection of Christianity and sexual identity through an Appalachian context.

Miles, who has received many scholarships, also volunteered with various campus and community organizations, organized the 2019 Arabic Poetry Initiative, and taught tap dancing at a local dance studio. In addition, he worked as an office assistant in the Department of Religion and Culture, a learning assistant and student-athlete tutor in Student Athlete Academic Support Services, a peer counselor for University Scholarships and Financial Aid, and an instructor for three Honors College seminars.

Miles said that even though he has struggled with being marginalized as a non-passing queer man over the years, his many positive experiences have propelled him forward and given him a vision for what he wants to accomplish with the Peace Corps.

“Life comes fast,” he said. “There’s no use in worrying. Enjoy every moment, pushing forward with whatever plan you may have, but find peace in knowing that what will be, will be.”

Written by Leslie King and photographed by Christina Franusich.