Students can now study abroad in the Middle East through a newly approved program at the University of Jordan in Amman. The creation of the program, coordinated through Middlebury College and launched in the fall, comes after a study abroad program in Alexandria, Egypt was placed on hold following last year’s outbreak of civilian protests against the government.
Two Brown students were participating through the approved program in Egypt — also coordinated through Middlebury — when they were evacuated from Alexandria last January.
Middlebury decided to postpone its Egypt program until further notice because “the situation is still too unstable in Egypt right now,” said Michael Geisler, Middlebury’s vice president for language schools, schools abroad and graduate programs.
Amanda Labora ’12.5 was one of the two Brown students evacuated from Egypt last January. Upon returning to Brown, Labora was in a “weird situation” because the study abroad program was over but second semester had already started. She decided to take a leave of absence because of her untimely return.
Labora said her time in Egypt was not wholly positive or negative. Her experience was “very humbling,” she said, because she realized how little control she had over the events that transpired.
“There’s a dogma at Brown that it’s always better to be somewhere else, but real effective change, like the radical societal change that happened in Egypt, can’t come from the outside,” she said.
Her advice to students studying abroad is to take every opportunity and obstacle as it comes, rather than trying to impose one’s own expectations on a given situation.
Michael Dawkins ’12 also did not immediately return to Brown after the evacuation.
“When I got back, it was extremely difficult adjusting,” he said. “There was this sensation that anytime something could explode or go off, or everything could go into chaos.” He has not yet resumed studies at Brown and has been working in Louisiana for several months.
“The transition was too difficult and too abrupt, and we weren’t really given a lot of time to process,” he said.
Geisler said Middlebury is monitoring the situation in Egypt daily, watching the news and receiving country briefings from the U.S. State Department and Global Rescue, the provider that helped airlift students from Alexandria during their evacuation. Since last November, Egypt has been on the State Department’s travel alert list, a list that includes countries whose conditions pose significant short-term risks to the security of American citizens, according to the Department’s website.
“Anytime you send students to a foreign country, there is a certain risk involved, no matter how much due diligence you do,” Geisler said. Four years ago, Middlebury was considering implementing a program in Syria, but “we had information that made us hesitate,” he said.
Prior to the protests that sprang up across the Middle East last year, Middlebury had already been looking to add an extra site in Jordan because the Egypt program was so successful, Geisler said.
“Everybody is looking at this with the understanding that the situation in Egypt is fluid,” said Kendall Brostuen, director of international programs and associate dean of the College.
Uprisings continue to occur across the Middle East, particularly in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen and Libya, said Melani Cammett, director of Brown’s Middle East studies program and associate professor of political science. Even in countries like Jordan, which are not mentioned as much in the headlines, political unrest is still an issue, she said.
Jordan is less of a concern at the moment, Cammett said, due to its different government dynamics. Jordan has a monarchy in addition to multiple political parties, and its “monarchy has been very astute at managing politics,” she said.
Protests are ongoing in Egypt, largely around the issue of the military’s current role in government. Cammett said the protests have been successful in terms of ousting former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and holding elections not rigged by the state. But many key features of the system have not yet changed, she said.
Other universities are currently less restrictive in terms of current study abroad options. Boston University, for instance, currently offers programs in Lebanon and Syria.
“We would like to go back,” Geisler said of Egypt. “But we have to be assured that it’s safe for the students, and right now we just don’t have enough information at this point.” Middlebury will decide within the next several weeks whether to reinstate its program in Egypt for fall 2012.
Students who applied to study abroad in Egypt for fall 2011 were notified last May that Middlebury was not going to run its program in Alexandria. Applicants had been told ahead of time that they would be automatically accepted to the Jordan program if Egypt was not an option.
The Jordan program, which took place for the first time last semester, worked “extremely well,” Geisler said. “Academically, it’s very strong.”
But the non-academic aspects of the program were not at all what students expected.
“We totally lived in a brothel,” said Alexa Stevens, a junior at Tufts University. “There was a secret passage from our dorm building to a coffee shop next door where women would work,” she said. She described seeing women wearing long black body coverings and high heels and make-up. “We would wonder what’s going on,” she said. “They were most likely prostitutes.”
“The cafe on the first floor of the dorm is in all likelihood a front for prostitution,” Middlebury wrote in a letter to the parents of participating students mid-way through last semester. “Some of these prostitutes may well be living in the same building as our female students.”
“We never felt unsafe per se, but there was a lot to be aware of in that part of town,” Stevens said. Jordan has a comprehensive secret police force and stable security system, which helped ensure foreign students’ safety, she said.
The building, which was privately owned and not affiliated with the University of Jordan, was located in a red-light district, according
to Ayane Ezaki ’13. It was an “uncomfortable place,” she said.
It took two weeks before Middlebury moved the students to a different building in the same red-light neighborhood. Ezaki said students were sexually harassed and that she personally had experienced blatant solicitation. Before they moved buildings, there was a robbery, an intrusion and a dog-killing outside their dorm.
“At no point did I feel that my safety was at risk,” Ezaki said.
Despite unexpected complications related to their housing, Ezaki and Stevens said they learned a lot while studying in Jordan.
Ezaki said her Arabic improved considerably, and the Jordanian faculty was fantastic. But because of the language requirements, she said she had little choice in selecting her courses.
In hindsight, she said she was ultimately glad she did not study in Alexandria especially given the turmoil in the city last November.
“I had a crazy experience,” she said, but “I’m glad I had it.”