AT first glance, they seem like typical American college students on their junior year abroad, swapping stories of language mishaps and cultural clashes, sharing sightseeing tips and travel deals. But these students are not studying at Oxford, the Sorbonne or an art institute in Florence.
Instead, they are attending the American University in Cairo, studying Arabic, not French, and dealing with cultural, social and religious matters far more complex than those in Spain or Italy. And while their European counterparts might head to Heidelberg, Germany, for a weekend of beer drinking, these students visit places most Americans know only through news reports — the West Bank, Ethiopia and even northern Iraq. No "Sex and the City" jaunts to Abu Dhabi for this group.
In what educators are calling the fastest growing study-abroad program, American college students are increasingly choosing to spend their traditional junior year abroad in places like Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, wanting to experience the Arab world beyond America's borders and viewpoints.
According to a February 2010 report from the Institute of International Education, a private nonprofit group that administers the Fulbright program for the United States government, the number of American students studying in Arabic-speaking countries increased sixfold to 3,399 in 2007 from 562 in 2002.
While that number may seem small compared with the more than 33,000 American students who headed to the United Kingdom in 2007 and the 13,000 who studied in China, it represents the fastest growing region for study abroad in the world. Between 2006 and 2007 the number of American students studying in Arab countries rose nearly 60 percent while China had only a 19 percent increase and England, 1.9 percent.
These numbers have no doubt been bolstered by the Critical Language Scholarship Program, begun in 2006 by the State Department — a government initiative set up to encourage college-age students to study Arabic, as well as 12 other listed languages, including Punjabi and Azerbaijani. Since then the program has become so popular (more than 12,000 students having applied for the Arabic program since its inception, with 800 being awarded scholarships), that this year eligibility was restricted to college and graduate students who have already had at least one year of Arabic.
Lisa Anderson, the provost at the American University in Cairo, which has a student population of around 7,000, said she has "absolutely seen a surge in U.S. students' interest in the region," adding that before 9/11 the university had 50 to 75 American students studying there each year, compared with around 350 a semester now.
"But you have to understand, these are not the same kids who go bike touring in France," said Ms. Anderson, who joined the faculty two years ago from Columbia University. "Many are contemplating careers in the Middle East, perhaps with the Foreign Service or an N.G.O. They are very serious about this region of the world."
Alex Thompson, 21, a Princeton senior this academic year who spent last year at the American University in Cairo, is typical of the student Ms. Anderson described. His interest in the Middle East stemmed from a summer spent at Seeds of Peace, a camp based in Maine with a mission to empower high school students from America, Egypt, Israel and thePalestinian territories, as well as other war-torn areas, to work for a better future.
"I knew then I wanted to learn more about the conflict in the Middle East and live there," Mr. Thompson said, adding that he spent one of his last vacations in Egypt traveling around Kurdistan with some friends. "We took a cab to Iraq from Turkey," he said, as casually as if he had just jumped the Eurostar from London to Paris.
LIKE most American students traveling to the Arab world, Mr. Thompson had already taken two years of modern standard Arabic at Princeton. Yet modern standard Arabic is a formal written form (the language of the Koran) that is rarely spoken in the streets and is likened to Shakespearean English — making it necessary for serious students to learn one of the many spoken regional dialects. Mr. Thompson, who hopes to work in Islamic finance one day, learned Egyptian colloquial Arabic, the everyday language in Cairo.
Brian Reeves, 21, and Leigh Nusbaum, 20, incoming seniors at Brandeis University, are Jewish, speak Hebrew and have spent considerable time in Israel. Hoping to one day work on the peace settlement, they came to the Middle East last term wanting to explore the other side of the Arab-Israeli conflict while honing their language skills.
"Arabic is the new Russian," said Ms. Nusbaum, who spent last spring studying at the American University in Cairo and wants to become a regional diplomat. Mr. Reeves chose the University of Jordan in Amman, where he learned the Levantine dialect spoken in the Palestinian territories, Syria and Lebanon. "I wanted to find out what Jews and Arabs have in common," Mr. Reeves said. "A lot."
Both students traveled extensively, including personal fact-finding visits to Palestinian refugee camps, as well as to Ramallah in the West Bank, all the while being discreet about their Jewish identity. Despite peace among Israel, Jordan and Egypt, strong feelings exist in all three countries when it comes to the Palestinian conflict.
To that end, Mr. Reeves quickly learned to speak in code when in public. "Israel became 'Disneyland,' Tel Aviv was 'Epcot,' and Jerusalem was called, 'Cinderella's Castle,' " he said. For Ms. Nusbaum, the experience of being delayed at the Israeli border for nearly five hours when she tried to cross from Jordan into the West Bank was both frustrating and enlightening. "I had stamps in my passport from Lebanon and Syria so they questioned me extensively before letting me through," she said. "It gave me a real taste of what the Palestinians go through."
Female American students also see what life is like for women in the Middle East. Hannah McDermott, 20, a senior this year at Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, spent last semester in Cairo researching women's rights issues in Egypt, including female genital mutilation and human trafficking, for a United Nations organization. Though she said it helped her decide her future (she would like to work on women's issues in Iran and Afghanistan), she remembers feeling the sting of "every man's eyes," despite dressing conservatively. No wonder it is not unusual for American mothers to worry about their daughters studying here. When Ms. McDermott told her mother her study-abroad destination, she said, 'Why can't you just go to France like other kids?"
Anna Khandros, 21, faced a similar reaction from her family when she told them she wanted to study in Beirut. "It is not easy to get your parents to let you go to a country with a State Department travel advisory, that is also home to a U.S. defined terrorist group, and that just went through a war," said Ms. Khandros, who this academic year will be back at Brandeis and spent last semester at the American University of Beirut. Once there, however, any anxiety evaporated. "A.U.B. is like a resort," said Ms. Khandros, who is studying the history of the modern Middle East. "My dorms look out over the beach and Beirut is an incredibly cosmopolitan and safe city during peaceful times."
Last year, 135 American study-abroad students were enrolled at the American University of Beirut, according to Rania Murr, the university's international student services coordinator. "The year after the war," she said, referring to the 2006 conflict, "we actually had an increase of American students." She said that during the war many preferred to stay in the mountains with the families of fellow Lebanese students than to return home.
American University in Washington, which has had a 400 percent increase in the number of students studying in the Middle East since 2004, stopped sending students to Beirut after 2006. "Getting our students out during the war was very difficult," said Sara Dumont, the director of American University Abroad (the State Department travel advisory says that American citizens must arrange their own travel out of Lebanon if unrest occurs).
J. Scott Van Der Meid, the director of study abroad at Brandeis, said the university never stopped sending students to Beirut but now provides them with a special type of emergency evacuation insurance. "Clearly the Middle East is an area of the world that is on our students' radar screen and we don't want to prohibit them from going there," Mr. Van Der Meid said. "But we need to keep them safe."
THOUGH American University has halted its Beirut program, it is starting one in Syria this spring. "Few Syrians speak English, so it is a better place for American students to really immerse themselves in the language," Ms. Dumont said, noting that most of the classes are taught in English at American University in Cairo and in Beirut.
"These students know there is a shortage in America of Arabic speakers," she said. "Knowing the language can only increase their job prospects."
To that end, Middlebury College students are obligated to take a "language pledge" to speak only Arabic during their time in Alexandria, Egypt (the only exception being calls home). Michael Kremer, 21, a senior at Tufts University, is nearly fluent after attending Middlebury's program. "I learned so much more Arabic than any of my friends studying on other programs," he said, adding that they were housed in dormitories with local students with whom they practiced their Arabic.
Already most of these students have seen their experiences in the Middle East translate into coveted internships and jobs. Brian Reeves spent this summer working for a congresswoman in Washington, as well as doing research for the Jewish Dialogue Group, a grass-roots organization trying to foster constructive discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within Jewish communities.
Alex Thompson, from Princeton, earned a paid internship in Cairo this summer with a social entrepreneurship nongovernmental organization helping Egyptians write business plans. And William Zeman, a senior at American University, returned from a study-abroad program at the America-Mideast Educational and Training Services in Cairo with more than 20 clips, some front page, from an internship at the Daily News Egypt, an English-language newspaper.
More important, these students say they now view the region completely differently. Kathryn Baxter, 20, a student at American University, said of her time in Egypt, "I will never again look at a story about the Middle East with such a one-sided perspective." Anthony Clairmont, 21, a senior at Sewanee: The University of the South, who spent six months in Morocco, said, "I genuinely enjoyed watching the bottom fall out of every one of my preconceived ideas about the Muslim world."
Yet none of them said they had confronted anti-American sentiment, other than occasional disagreements over foreign policy. "I found that whether I was in Cairo, Aswan, Amman or Damascus, people with whom I interacted wanted to talk about common interests — family, sports, music and economics — rather than our struggles and disagreements," said Richard Frohlichstein, 21, a senior at Georgetown University who spent last autumn at American University in Cairo.
Or as Anna Oltman, 21, a senior at Franklin & Marshall College, said about her semester in Egypt: "For better or worse, and certainly not unintentionally, 9/11 linked our generation of Americans with its parallel generation of Middle Easterners. We need to get to know them."