Opportunities Amid the Obstacles

Rather than withdraw from the Middle East and North Africa, colleges should encourage American students to study abroad in stable countries within the Arab world.

October 26, 2017
Doorway of Ben Youssef madrassa

Over the archway to the Ben Youssef madrassa in Marrakech, Morocco, appears the following inscription: “You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded.” As students preparing for careers in religion, law and science were welcomed to this institution for half a millennium, so visitors today are invited inside to experience the wonders of Morocco. This academy -- with its ornate central pool reflecting colorful mosaic tiles, carved cedar woodwork and smooth marble pillars within the courtyard -- continues to serve as an oasis for those seeking knowledge and serenity.

After teaching and conducting research as a Fulbright scholar 20 years ago in Tunisia, I have returned to neighboring Morocco to engage again in these activities. Much has changed with travel and living abroad. Back then, my suitcase contained a film camera, short-wave radio, TV/VCR combo and primitive laptop computer. Today, my rolling duffel bag carries a digital camera, smartphone, tablet, much-improved laptop computer and portable LCD projector. Rather than relying on newspapers and magazines to remain current with world events, I now watch videos, listen to podcasts and access websites over the internet. For better or worse, the world is much smaller due to recent technological innovations.

The relationship between the United States and the Arab world has also been forever altered in the past several decades. I remember the guarded optimism rising from the ashes of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Many of us hoped that there would be additional interest on American campuses about study abroad opportunities in the Middle East and North Africa, or the MENA. Expectations also increased with the Obama administration’s “new way forward.” Such anticipation was bolstered by changes in the countries spanning the region in the early 2000s. New and young leaders were emerging, and many believed they would embrace democracy, modernization and privatization.

But, unfortunately, conflict and destabilization have intensified in many of those countries. And as a result, while the U.S. government and universities have made various contributions, many of the aspirations about this region -- and the role international education can play in it -- have yet to be realized. It is crucial that American university students pursue education abroad opportunities in the MENA. The 22 countries and close to 400 million citizens in this region are inextricably linked to U.S. foreign policy, trade and other vital interests.

The percentage of students from the United States who participate in study abroad programs in the MENA continues to be extremely low. According to the 2016 Open Doors Survey conducted by the Institute of International Education, only 2.2 percent of students who studied abroad (or 6,844 out of 313,415) did so in the region. My sense is that relatively few American faculty members are active in the Arab world. At the same time, however, more than 10 percent of the international students studying in America come from the region. And although the 2005 Lincoln Study Abroad Commission proposed federal funding to reduce this type of international education deficit, the bill failed to garner sufficient support.

Meanwhile, Morocco has forged ahead. Various reforms have positively affected its citizens. Tourism has increased while terrorism has been minimized. The phrase often used for this phenomenon is “Moroccan exceptionalism.” Although such a description is perhaps premature, educators would do well to explore a country such as Morocco when considering opportunities in the Arab world.

Rather than withdraw from a region that is perceived to be in crisis, international education administrators and faculty members in the United States have a responsibility to seek out opportunities in stable countries within the Arab world. Students must be encouraged to consider education opportunities outside Western Europe. Certain countries, of course, appear on travel warning lists, and precautions must be taken when encouraging students and faculty members to travel to the region. American institutions must manage travel risks and formulate a crisis-response plan long before sending students abroad.

How can universities participate in international education activities that focus on the MENA?

The following suggestions allow for engagement.

  • Collaborate with other institutions and organizations promoting activities in the region. Representatives from the Fulbright program, the Peace Corps, the Boren Awards, Rotary International and other organizations are eager to visit campuses to highlight opportunities in the Arab world. In addition, financial support is often available from these organizations for students and faculty members who want to further develop their areas of expertise or have skills to offer. The Fulbright program also provides financial support for Arab scholars to teach and study at colleges and universities in the United States. When students at American institutions interact with individuals representing the MENA, they are better equipped to pursue opportunities in the Arab world. I have fond memories of hosting an Algerian sociologist in California for a three-week period in which he spoke on topics ranging from rai music to human rights.
  • Partner with local experts with knowledge of the Arab world. American campuses often have students, faculty members and community members with a wealth of knowledge about the region. Such individuals should be invited to share their experience. In addition, dialogue with them should be ongoing and integrated into academic and residential life -- not just relegated to, say, a short talk during International Education Week. By seeking out local experts, universities can provide insights about Arabs in the United States and abroad.
  • Keep an open mind and consider stable countries when sending students and faculty abroad. Along with certain other Arab countries, Morocco already hosts American students and faculty members. Universities and study-abroad program providers in the region offer international education opportunities, and there is potential for continued growth. International education administrators and faculty members in the United States should consider each Arab country and specific regions within the country on its own merits. Managing potential risks requires all participants -- sponsors, students and family members -- to understand the rewards and responsibilities within the MENA.
  • Encourage students to take advantage of a wide range of course work and service-learning experiences. Arabic language and cultural programs remain an essential part of education abroad, but other curricular and community service offerings exist as well. Numerous institutions in the region, recognized by internationally accreditation boards, deliver high-quality engineering, business and architecture programs. Students can enroll in major courses while also studying Islamic banking or architecture. They can also be involved in current issues such as refugee studies, for example, while participating in service learning.
  • Use technology effectively to bridge the distance. While in Morocco, I have participated in online video conferences and email exchanges with individuals and groups at universities in the United States. Along with my introducing the Fulbright Scholar program and encouraging them to apply for such grants, American students and faculty members have asked questions about the Moroccan monarchy, higher education and multilingualism. Technology is effective for continuing discussion as well as when travel to or from a country is challenging.

A number of Moroccan graduate students are participating in Erasmus-funded exchanges with European universities. Some of my colleagues in Morocco, however, continue to ask why American universities are not more engaged with institutions in their country and in the MENA at large. In this era of widespread misunderstanding about the Arab world, American universities must seek out opportunities for their students in this region. The lives and livelihoods of many individuals in both areas depend upon mutual knowledge and respect. In spite of obstacles, the doorways to educational institutions should continue to beckon to all who wish to enter.


John Battenburg is Fulbright senior scholar in Morocco and professor of English at California Polytechnic State University.


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