Studying abroad in the Middle East: Do it, don't fear it
Published: Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Updated: Thursday, January 10, 2013 19:01
The Middle East is growing in popularity as a destination for study abroad, but many students still have reservations about the region. The biggest challenges of studying abroad in the Middle East region have proven to be for young American women, raising questions about whether it’s safe and how women should navigate countries with different ideas of a woman’s role in society. With a vastly different culture to adapt to and new norms to recognize, these female students have their work cut out for them, but the experience has universally proven to be worthwhile. Students at UNCW shouldn't let their apprehension completely prevent them from studying abroad.
UNCW student Lydia Shippen's life while studying abroad in Amman, Jordan, sounds more like vacation than work. Visiting the deserts of Wadi Rum, scuba diving and studying rare fish and coral species in the Red Sea in Aqaba, wandering with camels in the desert, and visiting Jordan's archeological sites and castles– all done without much hassle.
“Honestly, the only negative part about being a woman in Jordan is the attention from men,” said Shippen.
The main issue is that men have a different, mostly inaccurate, view of American women. TV and media make women appear immodest and loose, and set them apart from Muslim women and they tend to receive some unwanted attention.
Herbert Berg, the director of international studies, said students shouldn't make generalizations about the men in these regions, just like foreigners can’t generalize men in America.
“They aren’t any different from men here, they just don’t always have the vocabulary or the cultural awareness to realize what can and cannot be said to American women.”
Travel abroad to the Middle East is popularly viewed as dangerous, risky, and unwelcoming; parents fear sending their children to these distant lands depicted in the news to be ravaged by violent anti-American protests, furious citizens, and warfare. But the “Arab Spring,” the name given to the protests, wars, and demonstrations taking place all over the Middle East since 2010, is portrayed much more radically in American media.
Shippen described how more than anything, locals want to discuss these issues amongst each other and foreigners and have a wide range of opinions. She stressed that a large portion of the population demonstrates against their own government and want peace in their lands.Students are encouraged to take the opportunity to experience the Islamic world and cultural differences of areas that hold so much global history.
Shippen had nothing but positive things to say regarding the amazing food she’s had the pleasure of trying, the new friends and new perspectives she has gained, and the fact that the people in Jordan are welcoming and hospitable. She described how the video “The Innocence of Muslims” which has sparked so much of the aggression in the Middle East is more a source of confusion among the locals.
“The majority of the people here in Jordan are not reacting violently,” said Shippen. “Yes, people are offended and confused, but most people that I talk to are asking the same question that I am, which is “Why?””
As with any international travel there are cultural differences that any and all students must be aware of.
“Living outside your comfort zone allows you to learn a lot about yourself, and to push yourself to learn about new people and cultures too,” said Shippen.
Kara Pike, the assistant director of study abroad at UNCW, encourages all students to look into the programs in the Middle East.
“What appears in our news media is anything that appears extreme and turbulent, not the norms of everyday life; they have similar views of American life because the TV and media they see is of the violence occurring in the US,” said Pike.
Shippen suggested a similar viewpoint, describing how the media portrays the nations as being in complete chaos. However most students returning from study abroad say they did not see anti-American sentiment, and that the natives wanted more to discuss foreign policy.
All in all, the experience of study abroad itself is incredible and the benefits and cultural awareness you gain far outweigh any doubts you may have. Berg agrees.
“I don’t believe in living in fear, I always encourage students to keep exploring," he said. "You get a glimpse of the culture, and you have the opportunity to be a positive reflection of American culture. We can break down stereotypes and put a human face on what it means to be Western."