Enrollment in Middle East studies and Arabic-language programs on American college campuses continues to rise, yet the number of American students who spend time studying in the Middle East remains low, according to a white paper issued this week by the Institute of International Education.
The report, "Expanding U.S. Study Abroad in the Arab World: Challenges and Opportunities," grew out of a workshop held last year for representatives of American and Middle Eastern universities that looked at ways to expand study-abroad opportunities in the Arab world.
Participants attributed the small presence of American students at Arab institutions to several key factors. They include deep concerns among American students over safety in the Middle East, questions among American administrators over the academic quality of many Arab institutions, and the challenges inherent in Arabic-language instruction.
Of the American students who enroll in for-credit study-abroad programs, only one percent of them—just 2,200 students—study at institutions based in the Arab world, the report notes. What's more, 80 per cent of those students are concentrated in three countries: Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco.
The report says that most American colleges grant credit for relatively few study-abroad programs in the Middle East, usually only for those they manage or those that are closely affiliated with other American institutions.
The workshop, organized by the institute and the Hollings Center for International Dialogue, convened at Al Akhawayn University, in Ifrane, Morocco, last March. Representatives came from 19 universities in 11 Arab countries and from 14 representatives from American colleges and organizations that develop study-abroad programs.
In addition to looking at the causes of low enrollments, participants also tried to come up with some ways to encourage the growth in study-abroad programs in the Arab world. Among other things, they encouraged the development of a consortia of Arab-world institutions to share resources and advice, and to better market themselves to an American audience.
Although the quality of programs offered varies widely across institutions in the Middle East, the report concludes that American college administrators often have unrealistic expectations that a quality study-abroad program will exactly match American curricula. The academic culture at Arab institutions may be quite different—placing an emphasis on memorization over critical thinking—yet to reject partnerships because of that, the report states, defeats the larger goals of study abroad, such as exposing students to a different way of life.
Fears About Safety
But by far, the biggest barriers to the expansions of study-abroad programs, the report notes, relates to their safety and security in a region where attacks on Westerners—no matter how statistically infrequent—remain a huge concern.
American educators' perceptions of the situation often vary significantly from those of their Arab counterparts, the report says.
For example, all of the American participants in the workshop said that students' and parents' concerns about safety in Arab countries "hindered their institutions from sending more students to the region, and nearly three-quarters of these participants identified this issue as a 'great challenge.'"
But more than half of the participants from the Arab world said that ensuring the safety of more Americans would "not be a challenge at all."
In fact, the preconceived ideas that many American students have about Middle Eastern culture—not to mention their cultural missteps—remain a huge challenge when Arab universities attempt to integrate them into the classroom.
"Students should not expect that survival strategies that they have employed in other challenging situations will necessarily work well for them to adjust to life in the Arab world," the report says.
Students who travel to the Middle East seeking Arabic-language instruction also face great difficulty tackling the language itself, which is extremely complex and has many dialects. Vastly different dialects are used in formal situations as compared to casual conversation, and dialects change drastically from country to country. American students who may have spent years studying Modern Standard Arabic at their home campuses often find much of what they have learned is useless when they arrive in the Arab World, the report says.
"Drawing on these considerations, workshop participants emphasized the need for students and their sending institutions to make strategic choices about Arabic study in the region," the report says.