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Study abroad programs in Middle East remain popular despite barriers

Published: Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, October 30, 2012 00:10

For many sophomores and juniors, the prospect of studying abroad is an exciting one. Students seek the chance to experience a new culture and explore a different part of the world, all while fulfilling requirements for graduation.

The Middle East is a region offering unique opportunities to students planning to study abroad — different languages, food and religions. Though Tufts has no official program in the Middle East, the region does draw quite a few Jumbos each semester.

According to Foreign Study Advisor for Non−Tufts Programs Brian Libby, 42 students studied abroad in the Middle East during the 2011−2012 academic year.

Senior Alexa Stevens participated in a Middlebury College program abroad last fall in Amman, Jordan to improve her already advanced skills in Arabic.

“As Tufts students, we have one of, I would say, the best Arabic programs in the nation,” Stevens said. “We went and were very well prepared, and we were very quick to get acclimated to the environment of speaking all Arabic because our program here is so intensive.”

According to the website for Middlebury Schools Abroad, students studying in Jordan register for both Modern Standard Arabic and Jordanian Colloquial Arabic in fulfillment of the program’s core curriculum and must adhere to the Middlebury College Language Pledge, agreeing to only speak the language in which they are studying.

Senior Elizabeth Bagley, who studied in Amman with Stevens, took the language pledge seriously as a way to fully immerse herself in the culture.

“You’re actually just never allowed to speak English ... all our classes were in Arabic. I had an American roommate, but we only spoke Arabic to each other,” Bagley said.

Professor Kamran Rastegar, director of the Tufts Arabic Program, believes that the language program on campus strives to prepare students in the most effective ways possible for going abroad.

“The situations are always changing, so we always have to be on top of it,” Rastegar explained. “We always have to think about how best to prepare students, but we take it seriously, and I hope that it results in better experiences for our students.”

Rastegar further stressed that, in an effort to expand Tufts’ reach within the Arabic language program and Middle Eastern Studies, Tufts had been in meetings to finalize an official Tufts abroad program based at the American University in Cairo when the Egyptian revolution began and plans were put on hiatus.

Bagley and Stevens experienced a similar situation. Both had applied to study in Alexandria, Egypt, but the program was moved to Jordan following the intensification of events in Egypt.

“We were applying in January of 2011, when the Egyptian revolution and the Tunisian revolution were beginning,” Bagley said. “So they told us when we applied that there was a very real chance that it would get moved to Jordan, but we weren’t told that for sure until about June or July.”

Political conflict within several countries in the region has engendered concern for study abroad hopefuls, making Jordan a safer choice for applicants.

“Traditionally, Egypt was the country that got most of the students studying abroad in the Middle East because for a long time it was a very safe country to be in for Americans and the American University in Cairo is well established there. So that tended to be the country that got the bulk of Tufts students going abroad,” Libby said. “But then, of course, after the Arab Spring, it became more difficult to be in Egypt and programs actually evacuated ... so I think that’s why Jordan has picked up recently in popularity.”

More recently, an anti−Islam video produced by an American led to an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya in September, sparking riots in various other countries including Yemen and Egypt. These events reinforce Jordan’s current popularity among students.

Juniors Avery Edelman and William Farris, currently studying in Amman with the Middlebury program, took precautions in response.

“There were a few peaceful protests in Amman, but nothing like those that occurred in Libya, Yemen or Egypt,” Edelman told the Daily in an email. “On days when protests were expected, our program asked us to avoid certain areas of the city. Nonetheless, I never got the feeling that any anger was directed at the American people, but rather at our governments and its policies or at the video itself.”

Farris stressed that, while he does stand out as a foreigner in Amman, his background has allowed for a more interesting cultural experience rather than a cause for concern.

“I’ve never felt unsafe — uncomfortable, maybe — being the American in the street,” Farris told the Daily in an email. “If anything, it’s been a catalyst for conversations with many Jordanians and other Arabs ... I’m definitely the odd one out here, but it’s a space and a discomfort I’ve come to occupy and learn from.”

Bagley offered similar sentiments concerning her American identity.

“Just like I can disassociate an Arab person from their government and see that not every Syrian person is like Bashar al−Assad, I felt like most Jordanians that I met realized that not every American believed in all the actions of our government,” Bagley said. “They were able to judge people on a more personal level.”

Junior Philip Hoffman, who will also be studying in Jordan this spring, believes there will be more to worry about with everyday matters than with security concerns as an American student.

“Honestly, I think traveling to the Middle East and large portions of the world in general ... you have more to worry about in day−to−day concerns like making sure you’re not getting sick from the food, finding your way around a city where a lot of the streets don’t have names or signs, haggling the fare to everything,” Hoffman said. “All those little concerns, I think, are more of a general challenge.”

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