Think about the Middle East and North Africa for one second and what comes to mind? Terrorists, war, and veiled women? While misguided, it is no surprise that the average American maintains negative imagery in regards the region. In spite of the existing stereotypes, I embarked on a seven-month study abroad experience in Jordan during the so-called “Arab Spring,” as I had been studying the development of the region for both my International Studies and Geography degrees. Choosing to study abroad in the MENA region was the best decision of my life, as I was able to experience a new and wonderful culture that embraced Americans, establish my independence, further my language skills, expand my academic horizons, and profoundly enhance my future career opportunities. I was so taken by the Arab world that I returned to Jordan this past summer to experience research abroad, as I received an undergraduate research grant from UK. While I hold a deep love for the Middle East and North Africa, I am not naïve; therefore, in order to encourage more UK students to experience education abroad in the MENA region, it is my goal to dispel several myths about life in the Arab world.
Safety concerns about education abroad in the MENA region are legitimate, but some of them can be a bit far-fetched. All Arabs hate Americans, right? Absolutely not. Arabs strongly dislike American foreign policy in the region because it has severely affected many of their lives, but they do not hate actual Americans. Every time I met a Jordanian and they discovered that I was American, they became extremely excited because I was actively exploring their language and culture. Once I said how much I loved Jordanian things, such as the local food, we instantaneously bonded and had much to talk about. If you are worried about having nothing in common with Arabs, American pop culture is everywhere; my Arab friends’ favorite TV shows were How I Met Your Mother, Grey’s Anatomy, and House. Arab hospitality is world renowned; I was never in a social situation where someone was distinctly rude to me because of my national origin or ethnicity. This was not just the case in Jordan, either. I also traveled to Egypt and Israel/ Palestine, having wonderful experiences in each place. If Americans are at least willing to experience the Arab way of life, they will receive so much in return. Unfortunately, the images of the MENA region that fill television screens across the world depict horrible violence, for there are indeed violent situations occurring in many countries. The majority of countries, though, are not experiencing such conflict. The Gulf area, Morocco, and Jordan are all fantastic places that offer a diverse array of experiences. Remember, education abroad programs would not even be running in the MENA region if the staff thought for one second that their American students would be in danger. Safety is always their top priority.
Safety concerns aside, what about actual daily life in the Middle East? American students in the MENA region have a fundamental choice; they can either fully immerse themselves in Arab culture or solely hang out with fellow American students. Moreover, one can eat McDonalds and drink Starbucks every day or hang out at a local cafe experiencing the local lifestyle. It is all about personal comfort levels. While I encourage all students going abroad to hang out with the locals, you will always have a group of Americans that have your back. A lot of the education abroad programs in the region also offer the option of living with a host family. I had a fantastic family that I lived with the entire time that I am now practically an adopted member of. Living with a family gave me the opportunity to experience Arab culture, food, and language very personally in a positive way. All families are heavily vetted so no one be worried about getting stuck with someone that is mean or restrictive. Living with a family is not for everyone, though, so apartment options are also available.
Gender is another issue that needs to be discussed. It is true that gender norms are not the same in the MENA region as they are in the US. This is not to say, though, that women are repressed. Women may dress more conservatively, but that is also a personal choice a majority of the time. American women are not forced to veil; I merely had to dress modestly and respect the local customs. Sexual harassment does exist, but it also exists in Europe and everywhere else in the world. You are not going abroad to have the same life that you do in the US; therefore, one just adapts and goes on in a completely normal manner. Do not let gender discourage you from going to the Middle East.
Finally, the last major aspect of education abroad in the MENA region is Arabic. Although I personally studied Arabic for two years at UK before I went abroad, a lot of my fellow Americans in Jordan had no formal studies. They were still able to get around the city perfectly well, meet new people, and pick up the language fast. Plus, a majority of Jordanians also know English so they were more than willing to practice their English skills. There are no language prerequisites and you can pick a program that is fully immersive or one that is not focused on the language.
If you want to experience snorkeling in the Red Sea, shopping in a bazaar, riding a camel in the desert, making wonderful new friends from diverse backgrounds, or seeing the pyramids in person, then I highly encourage you to check out education abroad in the Middle East. There is nothing else like it and it will only offer you the experience of a lifetime.
By: Gwen Schaefer, UK Education Abroad Peer Ambassador, International Studies & Geography Senior