Inside Higher Ed: After Egypt

By Sam Petulla, for Inside Higher Ed

February 7, 2011

Study-abroad staff evacuating their students last Monday and Tuesday all noticed a trend: many students did not want to leave. Were it up to them, they would still be watching the events from dorm rooftops, talking to local activists about chasing down police, and scrambling to collect souvenirs. Of course, security experts, parents and university staff observing a volatile, precarious political situation had another view of things, and insisted the students come home. By the time pro-Mubarak forces clashed with protesters on Wednesday, many of those who had wanted to stay were already out of the country.

Still, study-abroad officials were encouraged by the continued interest. “I did two interviews on Monday and got another email that said, ‘Even more I’d like to go. Do you still have space available?,’” said Denis Sullivan, director of Northeastern University’s international affairs programme and Middle East Center for Peace, Culture, and Development.

On Thursday night, the requests were still coming. After a panel talk about the Egyptian street protests, Sullivan was swarmed by students eager to get on the university’s 10 May trip to Egypt. “This is history,” said one female student who has been to Egypt before. “Even if Northeastern cancels the programme I’m going because I have Egyptian friends who will house me.” Sullivan assured her and three other students that they could all still sign up; the trip has not been cancelled.

Allan E. Goodman, the president and CEO of the Institute of International Education, said he expects this trend to continue. “Interest in learning more about the region is likely to remain high, and even to increase in the coming years,” he said in an email.

While 9/11 made some students wary of travel outside the United States, it made many others much more interested in the Middle East. Khaled Al-Masri, a Harvard University preceptor of Arabic who for 12 years oversaw the University of Virginia’s summer study abroad in Jordan, said: “In the long term, I think we will see something similar to what happened following 9/11. In terms of an increase in numbers for study abroad, I think current events will have the same impact.”

Study abroad to Arabic-speaking countries increased 1 per cent between 2002 and 2006, according to the Institute of International Education. At the same time, such a large percentage increase was possible because the base was so low. American students are about 40 times more likely to go to Europe than to the Middle East.

Some study-abroad leaders noted that this is not the first time that a country in the Middle East has seen violence, or a crisis, and that sometimes it can take a while for students to return – although gains are possible.

Lebanon saw internal strife from 2006 to 2008 that limited enrolments. But by 2008-9, American enrolments for study abroad were up 42 per cent from the previous year. Ahmad Dallal, provost of the American University in Beirut, said that uncertainty is simply a reality. “We already communicate with the students, we already developed our own emergency programmes that we communicate,” he said. “Historically, [our campus] has been one of the safest areas. So this is what we tell the parents: ‘We are hopeful that things will continue to be resolved politically. We don’t control the political situation, and we closely monitor it as quickly as we can.’”

Richard Gaulton, Cornell University’s director of study abroad, said the situation in Egypt reminded him of the Second Intifada in Israel, which had a short-term effect. “Around 2000, 11 years ago, you could study the drop in enrolment,” he said. “Many universities stopped allowing students to go there, and I would say it was five years or so before the numbers improved significantly.” Indeed, in the 2001-02 calendar year, 1,031 students studied abroad in Israel; by the 2007-08 year, that number had jumped to 2,322. That dramatically outpaces the rise in study-abroad enrolment worldwide over the period.

The events in Egypt also have not stopped the creation of study-abroad programmes in the region. Stanford University has for some time been planning to build a programme somewhere in the Middle East, explained Robert Sinclair, the Robert Burke family director of the Bing overseas studies programme. Which exact country has yet to be decided, but the goal remains the same. “We’re still very determined,” he said.

At least in the near future, of course, Egypt may not be viable – as the students studying there this semester who were evacuated in large numbers, quickly learned. That’s led some study-abroad programmes to rethink their late spring and summer Egypt programmes, and to reconsider where to send students looking for a safe Middle East destination. “The moment we’re in has put a tremendous halt, a full-stop, to programmes in Egypt,” said Sullivan. “At the same time, I’m looking ahead to my summer programmes starting 10 May. Our expectation – we’ve had discussions on campus already with our people here – is there’s no need to stop planning for these programmes, and in a month’s time, 1 March or 10 March, if things are not quiet, that’s OK – we will still have two months to plan.”

Middlebury College, which operated a study-abroad programme out of Egypt – and which pulled its students out of Alexandria last Monday – wants to set up a new programme in the region, but is not sure where. “We will have a programme in the Middle East,” said Michael Geisler, the college’s vice-president of language schools, schools broad and graduate programmes as well as a professor of German. “I expect us to return there. There are a number of options. Morocco is one,” he said, adding the United Arab Emirates and Syria to a list of the possible destinations. Middlebury is also in the process of creating a study-abroad programme in Israel.

Yet while safety is always a concern – anywhere – it is, in the end, not the only one. Middle East study abroad often comes down to Arabic. Local dialect, explained Gaulton, may influence the decision on where to go. “Students now looking to go to the Middle East say, ‘Yes, they speak Arabic in Morocco and Arabic in Jordan’, but they’ll be alert to the very big differences in Moroccan and Lebanese Arabic, for example,” he said. “So I think there’s a more sophisticated method of choosing locations and programmes rather than just based on specific locations.”

Geisler explained that for Middlebury, dialect would be a serious consideration. Morocco, he said, although considered a very safe place to offer study abroad, has a distinct dialect that’s quite different and removed from Modern Standard Arabic – a more formal Arabic recognised multinationally and not typically used colloquially. Another country considered to be on the safe side, the United Arab Emirates, is considered too anglicised. Safe, therefore, does not necessarily mean academically ideal.

Studying abroad “has always been based on evaluating the right programme for the right student”, said Peter Moran, director of international programmes and exchanges for the University of Washington. “So of course we will continue to tell parents that going to the Middle East is not for everyone. And we want to make sure the students who go – especially into the changing political landscape – that they are aware of what they’re going into – and we may or may not recommend it.”

At Cornell, for any country that has a State Department travel warning in effect, as Egypt now does, a student must apply for approval from a committee known as the International Travel Advisory and Response Team.

Sara Dumont, the director of American University’s study-abroad department, said that her university has been through study-abroad crises before, and that what has been crucial has been firsthand information from people who know the area well.

“We have a programme in Nairobi, Kenya, for example, and we had a programme start there in mid-January of 2008 when there was a presidential crisis,” she said, referring to the ethnic violence that followed a widely criticised presidential election. “Initially we thought we would shut that programme down and not go.” But the university kept the programme. “I think we were the only programme that operated during that time. This is the kind of thing that happens when you’re on the ground. And we had other on-site programme staff – like a security specialist, who was confirming that, as long as we kept students away from certain areas, we were safe. And the area where our students were living was in general safe. We delayed the start of the programme a little bit, and by the time students got there it was relatively calm. And then it’s a wonderful experience for students because they’re right there when history is changing.”

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