Two senior North Park University students are leaving for different places in the Middle East, where they will study Arabic and learn more about the diverse cultures of the region.
Another student, who graduated from North Park this year, Erin Elisabeth Smith, of Carpentersville, Ill., just returned from a U.S. State Department–sponsored program in Jordan, where she studied Arabic.
Aaron Jones, of St. Louis, left August 30 for three months of study, beginning in Israel at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Studies, located between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The program is part of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities' (CCCU) Middle East Studies Program through North Park University's International Office. Jones will take classes focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, people and cultures of the Middle East, Islamic thought and practice, and Arabic language study.
"I've been interested in the Arabic language since ninth grade of high school, when I started teaching myself the alphabet and sounds," Jones said. "I've taken Arabic since I've been at North Park for two years. I love languages in general, especially Arabic. I don't know that much about the Arab culture. I'm hoping to learn about that on the trip."
During their stay in the Middle East, the students will visit Turkey and parts of Jordan, Jones said. Jones is a North Park Global Studies major, focusing on world cultures, history, and languages. He said he hopes the study program helps him focus on a career choice.
Xenia Gonzalez, of Mexicali, Baja California, will study at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. She will leave the United States September 4 and return in early January. The North Park Global Studies major is focusing on the Middle East and Latin America. She accessed the study program through International Student Exchange Programs (ISEP) and the University's International Office.
"Since my senior year of high school, I knew that I wanted to know more about what was going on in the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," she said. "In my freshman year at North Park I enrolled inbeginning Arabic
in order to fulfill my foreign-language requirement, and ever since then the culture has drawn me in. I love the culture and the value that it holds. Arabic is such a beautiful language, and that area is just so full of history, so all together, it has taken a hold of me."
Smith studied Arabic this summer in Jordan thanks to a Critical Language Scholarship she was awarded by the U.S. State Department. Prof. Anis Said, North Park lecturer in Arabic, said about 5,200 applications were submitted for the highly competitive scholarships, one of which was awarded to Smith. "This is very prestigious among universities in the United States," he said.
Smith said her role in Jordan "was to learn as much Arabic as possible in two months and be a cultural ambassador for the United States."
Smith earned a bachelor's degree this year from North Park in music and French. She spent most of her time abroad studying at the Qasid Arabic Institute in Amman with several other people from throughout the world. On weekends, she visited places in Jordan such as the Dead Sea and Petra (see photo). Smith said she fell in love with the culture and the people of Jordan. She maintained a blog about her experiences during the trip.
"The people are the most open and generous people I've ever encountered," she said. "I think it has a lot to do with the culture. You meet someone and five minutes later they invite you over for dinner. People go out of their way to welcome you and to be generous. I've never been in a (place) where you walk into a shop and they insist on serving you tea."
From her experience, Smith said it's important to meet people from different cultures personally and avoid judgments based on inaccurate information or media impressions. She also said this year's political changes in the Middle East highlight the need for people from the West, especially the United States, to relate to that region.
"Studying abroad is important because it gives students the opportunity to broaden their worldviews," said Dr. Jennifer Pope, director of North Park University's International Office. Preparation is also important as students consider such study. Students can learn much here in Chicago, by visiting the city's museums and cultural centers, enjoying food from different parts of the world, worshiping in languages other than English, listening to world music, or watching films made in other countries, she said.
About 65 North Park students plan to study abroad for a semester during the 2011-2012 academic year, Pope said. An additional 50 to 60 students will be on short-term academic study tours, she said. Students will study in 13 different countries, including Argentina, Austria, Chile, Costa Rica, England, Finland, France, Israel, Nicaragua, the Netherlands, South Korea, Sweden, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Both Nicaragua and the UAE are new locations for students, Pope said.