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How area colleges adapt their overseas study programs to today’s political climate

How area colleges adapt their overseas study programs to today’s political climate

By Lexi Gray Andrews

Contrasting modern living with ancient ruins, egypt is home to american university in cairo, where students typically enroll for one or more terms.
Contrasting modern living with ancient ruins, Egypt is home to American University in Cairo, where students typically enroll for one or more terms.

Jenn Young, a senior at the University of Maryland (UMD) in College Park, had no reservations about embarking on a study abroad program that took her to Egypt and Israel during the summer of 2008. As a Middle Eastern history major, Young had already taken several classes focused on Israeli history, and she was excited for the opportunity to experience first-hand the region she had been learning about for so long.

“I know a bunch of people who have traveled to the region, and they all assured me it wasn’t as dangerous as it’s made to seem in the news. I kept hearing that the news makes it look worse than it actually is,” Young says.

Despite her confidence, Young was still cognizant of the fact that the program to Egypt and Israel is categorized as being potentially risky. “It was one of the only study abroad programs that required students to read a really lengthy document acknowledging the potential danger of the region,” Young notes.

Mary Yanik and Jenn Young outside the egyptian museum in downtown cairo the summer of 2008.
Mary Yanik and Jenn Young outside the Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo the summer of 2008.

“My parents were slightly concerned about me going to Israel, but I definitely wasn’t nervous at all,” the Severna Park, Md., resident says. Young’s parents are certainly not the only people who considered the many news stories about political unrest in the Middle East, and how that situation might affect students traveling to the area. In early 2009, several U.S. colleges and universities canceled their abroad programs to the Middle East—in some cases at the last minute, according to the Jerusalem Post. Reports of violence in the Gaza Strip led universities including Rutgers, Duke and the University of Pennsylvania to cancel study abroad programs in Israel.

Enjoying Challah from a bakery in a downtown Jerumsalem market.
Enjoying Challah from a bakery in a downtown Jerumsalem market.

Nearer to Northern Virginia, three programs through Washington, D.C.’s American University (AU) that facilitated studies abroad in Yemen and Lebanon were suspended—the former explicitly due to security concerns. AU regularly performs risk assessment on each of its study abroad programs in order to determine whether they should continue, according to the website for AU Abroad.

AU still offers several nontraditional study abroad programs, most notably two programs in Tajikistan, which are organized through the American Councils for International Education. The Tajikistan programs focus on immersion in the country, its language and its culture. Students live with approved host families and have the opportunity to meet with local Tajikistani peer tutors for several hours a week.

In addition to UMD and AU, colleges and universities throughout our region are accommodating students who wish to study in these nontraditional countries, even during times of political unrest. Georgetown University offers semester and summer-session programs in Egypt, Jordan and Qatar, which each emphasize Middle East and North African culture and politics.

Many students like Young are working toward careers in fields like conflict resolution and community organization, and consider study abroad to be a cornerstone of their preparation for the workforce.

At the top of the priority list for universities is providing mandatory safety education before students enter any type of program abroad, no matter where they are traveling. Students should know what to expect from the country and its culture, says Lee Sternberger, James Madison University (JMU) associate provost and executive director for the school’s Office of International Programs.

JMU, located in Harrisonburg, offers a summer study tour that visits several major cities in Europe and the Middle East, so students encounter a wide range of cultural differences during the relatively short program.

“We teach the local customs and how to be safe and how to dress in cultures that are less similar than ours,” Sternberger says. “Study abroad has more of an impact than many things students will do during their college careers, and it is important that students are safe during their time in these programs. The experiences from study abroad will often stay with a person their whole life.”

There is no shortage of students who are seeking out these nontraditional study abroad options. Marina Markot, the University of Virginia’s associate director for study abroad, says there is a very large population of students who are deeply interested in countries with drastically different cultures than the U.S.

“They are interested in the problems of the world—poverty, public health and social justice, to name a few. Studying these issues without the local context is very difficult. It’s better to see something first-hand than read about it 10 or 20 times,” Markot says.

Passionate Professors
Many colleges in Northern Virginia and the surrounding regions are able to accommodate students who wish to study in just about any region of the world. A key component of this versatility with many colleges’ study abroad programs is that they are able to find professors who are passionate about a particular region.

The program Young attended last summer is headed by two UMD professors with decades of experience studying and lecturing on and in the Middle East. Professor Edward Kaufman is a former executive director of the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Professor Talaat Shehata graduated from Cairo University in Egypt and has more than 30 years of international relations experience. Under the guidance of Kaufman and Shehata, students enrolled in the Egypt and Israel summer program were asked to focus on how to address international conflict and work toward helping to foster a peaceful coexistence between countries.

Young says, for her, the program exceeded its basic goals. “Basically the only way you can understand conflict resolution is to meet individuals on both sides of a certain conflict. Of course you can find conflict anywhere – it’s in a thousand places – but it is so important to travel to this region plagued by violent conflict for so long. You get a sense of what it’s like to live in those conditions of conflict.

“For me, studying abroad was a reaffirmation that conflict resolution is something I really want to pursue after I graduate.”

Among the area’s universities and professors, programs concerning international culture and conflict analysis are by no means confined to the Middle East. At George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, Al Fuertes is the director of a summer program in the Philippines that encourages students to learn conflict resolution though both community service and peace building.

Global programs should teach students how to value the experiences of the people who may differ from them, Fuertes says. “When students go to the Philippines, they are not confined within the walls of the classroom, but are immersed in the community.”

Students who participate in GMU’s Philippines program have the chance to meet the country’s military and religious leaders, while also having the chance to live with a host family.

“There are many ways for students to get out of their comfort zones and experience new ways of doing things. They realize how much responsibility they have as spokespeople from the Unites States,” Fuertes says.

Since the Philippines is drastically different than the United States, and plagued with poverty and religious separation, Fuertes accommodates students by holding daily debriefings during the summer program. “We just go through the whole experience that students are having, and what it means to them. It’s a matter of helping the students understand the major differences between the United States and the Philippines, when it comes to culture,” Fuertes says.

George Mason University students stand in front of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force building in the Golan Heights region near the Syrian/Israeli border
George Mason University students stand in front of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force building in the Golan Heights region near the Syrian/Israeli border

Extraordinary Opportunities
GMU students interested in conflict resolution also have the chance to learn first-hand about the significant and historic struggle between Israel and Palestine. A program held each summer and winter focuses on conflict resolution and the history and development of Israel and Palestine. Through this program, students learn from experts and leaders on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and are schooled in the region’s dynamics and history.

Kevin Stoy, marketing director of GMU’s Center for Global Education, says the university has struggled as far as getting other Arabic-language programs to grow in popularity, but the Israel-Palestine program has a steady following each year.

The program is led by Yehuda Lukacs, associate provost for global education, and director of the GMU Center for Global Education. Lukacs has been taking groups of students to the Israeli-Palestinian region for about 12 years, and has extensive contacts in the region, Stoy says.

Due to heightened safety concerns in late 2008 and early 2009, Stoy says students were “kept on a shorter leash” during the winter program, but there was no serious talk of canceling the program altogether, or ending it early. Only one student dropped out of the program before it began, and that was due to personal safety concerns, according to Stoy.

Stoy says it was important for GMU to keep the program running, in order to accommodate the many students who were depending on it as a profound learning experience. “Now is as important a time as ever to be in that region and learning about it. Dr. Lukacs can pull off such a successful program because he has a lot of experience and a good structure in place. He has a lot of the right tools in place to make it work.”

“Global education isn’t the kind of learning where you’re asked to memorize and regurgitate. It challenges the individual to ask questions about themselves, and puts them face to face with realities they might not have experienced otherwise. When students get back home, they notice things they might not have noticed before—things they might have taken for granted,” Stoy adds.

Witnessing History
Traveling to a nontraditional location is not just about studying a region’s history. Students might get to witness history in the making, as each cycle of an abroad program can be drastically different from the last.

The University of Virginia’s winter term program in Ghana coincided with the country’s three-round 2008 presidential election, which eventually resulted in John Atta Mills’ victory in early January. Students participating in the program were able to witness first-hand the securing of Ghana as a stable democratic country.

Scot French, associate professor of history and director of the University of Virginia’s January term Ghana program, says, “Yes, we were there during the runoff elections and waited breathlessly, along with our Ghanaian hosts, for the results. For me, it was absolutely electric. I watched, thrilled, as a waiter in the Castle Restaurant showed our students how voters’ thumbs were inked and then pressed onto the ballot.”

French says he and the students followed the election news each day, and finally witnessed the official announcement of Atta Mills’ victory, and later the new president’s inauguration. U.S. Ambassador to Ghana Donald Teitelbaum invited French and the students to his home for dinner on the last night of the program. During the meal, Teitlebaum stressed to students the significance of what they had witnessed during the month-long program.

“He told them that Ghana was now essentially a two-party country in which both parties had won an election and assumed power, and both parties had won an election and stepped down voluntarily,” French says. Teitlebaum told the students, “It’s something you’ll be able to look back on and say, I was there at a really historic moment.”

Markot says that when it comes to helping students gain an understanding of world governments, “the key here is to help students grow in their understanding of the world, period. Start from where they are and then take them one step further—hopefully two steps further.”

Looking Toward the Future
Even among local colleges and universities that do not currently offer a wide range of nontraditional study abroad options, many faculty members recognize the need to accommodate students who want to go down that road.

Ella A. Sweigert, director of education abroad at the Catholic University of America (CUA)’s Center for Global Education, says that while the university does not yet offer nontraditional study abroad programs, they are working to expand the overall program.

Students are encouraged to attend CUA-approved programs that travel to areas like the Middle East, as long as there is no State Department travel warning against a particular region. “Colleges in general want to expand their scope beyond the traditional Europe destinations,” Sweigert says. For Young, her experiences traveling abroad to study conflict resolution are far from over. After graduation, she plans to revisit Belfast, Northern Ireland, where she studied earlier in her college career. The opportunities she was granted through study abroad are something she will carry far beyond graduation.

“It was really an eye-opener to see first-hand how people in a region are restricted by conflict situations. Traveling to Israel and the West Bank and hearing the biases and opinions from each side helped me understand how deep these feelings of hatred and misunderstanding run,” Young says, adding, “It’s important for everyone to understand international conflict—but especially if you want to have a career in resolution. It’s our responsibility to understand that we all have the potential to help in some way. ”

Tip #1
Register with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate through the State Department’s travel registration website,, making your presence and whereabouts known in case it is necessary to contact you in an emergency.

Tip #2
Get familiar with health conditions at your destination (high altitude or pollution, types of medical facilities, required immunizations, availability of required pharmaceuticals, etc.), and make sure you are up to date on your vaccinations. A key resource for health information is the Travelers’ Health page of the Centers for Disease Control website at

(July 2009)