Three weeks ago, Colin Valentine '14 went snorkeling at a friend's diving resort in Aqaba, Jordan. When he got out of the water, the first thing he saw was a newscast on Al Arabiya — a Saudi-owned pan-Arab satellite channel — broadcasting the news of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya that left the American ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.
Valentine is taking a semester off to study Arabic and work in Jordan. Five days after the attack on Sept. 11, Valentine received an email from Director of the Office of International Programs Nancy Kanach. Valentine said her note was both friendly and cautionary.
"Please be sure to keep your distance from any and all protests," Kanach's email read. "Even peaceful demonstrations are turning violent in some places. Let me know how you're doing, ok?"
In the wake of the recent wave of protests all over North Africa and the Middle East, the University has taken steps to ensure the safety of students studying abroad in the region. In an email to junior concentrators on Friday, the Wilson School announced that it was canceling its spring study abroad program in Cairo, Egypt.
Egypt is currently under a travel warning from the U.S. State Department, and Elisabeth Donahue, a Wilson School spokesperson, said the decision to cancel the program was made for student safety reasons but declined to elaborate on what specific threats students in the area face. She also declined to say when — or by whom — the decision to cancel the program was made.
Though Jordan is not currently under a travel warning, Kanach said OIP is taking extra steps to protect students currently in the region.
"We're going to be watching closely the situation even in those countries that are not under travel warning," Kanach said.
Kanach said Valentine and Caroline Urquhart '14 are currently the only students studying abroad in North Africa and the Middle East. Urquhart is spending the semester studying abroad in Amman, Jordan, and also received an email from Kanach after the protests erupted in the region.
"She emailed me a couple of days later asking about me about the situation here and making sure that I was okay, asking me about what the situation was like here and making sure that nothing had really changed here," Urquhart said.
Kanach also mentioned that Urquhart's program had already emailed a similarly cautionary note and that the program had been in touch with Kanach as well.
"The program obviously tells them to stay away from demonstrations even if they look peaceful, because things can escalate," Kanach said. "She was getting really good advice from the program."
Urquhart said conditions in Jordan have remained stable after the attack, which was sparked by an American film, "Innocence of Muslims," that has been perceived as mocking the prophet Muhammad.
"Maybe two or three days afterwards people were a bit worried just because it seemed like there were things beginning to start off in other countries in the region too," Urquhart said. "There are some times when we're in taxis and if the driver notices that it's a group of Americans, sometimes they do ask about the film, but it's just interest questions, nothing intimidating or anything like that. Really I've found that life here hasn't really changed since those events. I think most people do feel very safe here."
When protests initially erupted in Egypt in January 2011, the University evacuated four students who were studying or conducting research there. Kanach said the University would consider evacuating students studying abroad in the region on a case-by-case basis.
In addition to notes of caution sent after students arrive at their travel destinations, OIP holds programs on safety before students go abroad.
In the future, despite the violence, many students hope to be able to study or visit Egypt.
"Egypt is a very important place to learn Arabic," said Uchechi Kalu '14, who has been to Morocco and is applying to study in Jordan. "Because so much media is coming out of Egypt, the dialect is very important. So I'm bummed that I can't go."
Redab Alnifaidy '14 spent last semester studying abroad in Morocco but said her first choice would have been to visit Cairo instead. Nevertheless, she felt that she hadn't missed out on her primary goal of improving her Arabic.
"I think that hopefully there will be opportunities [to visit Egypt] once everything calms down, and I'm not giving up on those," Alnifaidy said. "It's pretty exciting, actually, to go to a different place than I wanted. I'm forced into a different cultural exploration than I expected."