After Egypt

February 4, 2011

Study abroad staff evacuating their students 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 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 Monday and got another e-mail 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 program and Middle East Center for Peace, Culture, and Development.

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 May 10th trip to Egypt. "This is history," one female student who has been to Egypt before said. "Even if Northeastern cancels the program I’m going because I have Egyptian friends who will house me." Sullivan assured her and three other students they could all still sign up; the trip has not been canceled.

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 e-mail.

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 that "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,” said Al-Masri.

Study abroad to Arabic-speaking countries increased 127 percent 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 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 enrollments. But by 2008-9, American enrollments for study abroad were up 42 percent 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 programs 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 enrollment," 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 2001-2 calendar year, 1,031 students studied abroad in Israel; by the 2007-8 year, that number had jumped to 2,322. That dramatically outpaces the rise in study abroad enrollment worldwide over the period.

The events in Egypt also have not stopped the creation of study abroad programs in the region. Stanford University has for some time been planning to build a program somewhere in the Middle East, explained Robert Sinclair, the Robert Burke Family Director of the Bing Overseas Studies Program. 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 programs to rethink their late spring and summer Egypt programs, 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 programs in Egypt,” said Sullivan. "At the same time, I’m looking ahead to my summer programs starting May 10th. Our expectation -- we’ve had discussions on campus already with our people here -- is there’s no need to stop planning for these programs, and in a month's time, March 1st or March 10th, if things are not quiet that’s O.K. -- we will still have two months to plan.”

Middlebury College, which operated a study abroad program out of Egypt -- and which just pulled its students out of Alexandria Monday -- wants to set up a new program in the region, but is not sure where. “We will have a program in the Middle East,” said Michael Geisler, the college's vice president of language schools, schools broad, and graduate programs 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 list of the possible destinations. Middlebury is also in the process of creating a study abroad program 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," he said. "So I think there’s a more sophisticated method of choosing locations and programs rather than just based on specific locations.”

Geisler explained that for Middlebury, dialect will 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 recognized multinationally and not typically used colloquially. Another country considered to be on the safe side, the United Arab Emirates, is considered too Anglicized. Safe, therefore, does not necessarily mean academically ideal.

Studying abroad "has always been based on evaluating the right program for the right student," said Peter Moran, director of international programs 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 program in Nairobi, Kenya, for example, and we had a program start there in mid-January of 2008 -- it was a presidential crisis," she said, referring to the ethnic violence that followed a widely criticized presidential election. "Initially we thought we would shut that program down and not go." But the university kept the program. "I think we were the only program 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 program staff -- like a security specialist, who was confirming that, as long as we keep 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 program 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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