Sitting outside for lunch one day, Carlye Scheer and a handful of other students were tear-gassed during a riot in Egypt just a little over two years ago.
"You wanted to throw up. It was like your eyes, your nose, your mouth was draining and you couldn't stop coughing," said Scheer.
On Feb. 17, 2011 the people of Libya began marching in protest of their ruler Mummar Gaddafi. The uprising would be one of many revolutions that engulfed the Middle East during the turmoil of the Arab Spring. Today, the region's colossal changes continue to impact the experiences of WMU students, both restricting foreign study options while opening up new possibilities.
Historically Egypt has served as one of the most popular travel destinations for American students looking to improve their Arabic skills with linguistic immersion. However, the country is now off limits for those at WMU due to the social and political upheaval following the Egyptian revolution.
Scheer, now a junior at Western, was studying in Egypt during the spring semester of 2011, and when the uprising began she witnessed it firsthand.
"I actually had a friend who went to the American University in Cairo (AUC) and he was studying Arabic at the time and told me he had a great time. So that was just my first choice right off bat and I stuck with it. And at the time Egypt seemed fine, you know, no unrest or anything so it seemed perfect," said Scheer.
It was her first time out of the country and she was excited to be the first Western student to study at AUC's newly constructed facilities.
"When I arrived there it was amazing. I did not live on campus. I lived in an apartment with a couple of people," said Scheer. "We got to tour campus before classes started and everything was great. We loved it and then we had a couple school trips planned that week before classes started."
One of those trips included a visit to the famous pyramids, but the tour was soon canceled due to protests developing in Tahrir Square, only a mile from her apartment complex.
"There was a lot of confusion. Nobody really knew what was going on. They were trying to keep all the students in the dorms but I wasn't living in the dorms so I was free to do whatever I wanted. Those next couple of days, we went out with friends every night and everything was fine while [the protests were] progressing that week. And then Friday was Jan. 25, and everything kind of happened really quickly," said Scheer. "We stayed in the apartment and you could hear tear gas canisters going off all night. The sound they made, it sounded like gunshots almost, and we woke up a couple of times in the night to gun shots in our neighborhood so that next day we moved to the dorms."
Her experience intensified at lunch the day after when protesters marching by drew fire from Egyptian police.
AUC closed its campus for weeks during the revolution while phone, Internet and television services were down.
About a week into the revolution, Scheer was evacuated to Istanbul by the U.S. State Department and eventually made her way back to the States.
She received an incomplete for her time while studying in Cairo.
Western has not allowed its students to receive academic credit for studying in Egypt since the revolution. This cancellation has forced WMU students to explore other options for Arabic language study abroad.
In an effort to diversify its foreign study options for Arabic learners Western is now offering a new program at the American University in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Dan Mauragis is a WMU student in his junior year as a History major who is now beginning his fourth week in the UAE.
"I think if I was going to graduate school, somewhere like U of M, they would have sent me to Egypt because it's like the cultural center of the Arab world – all the movies are made there – most people know Egyptian Arabic so it would be a good place to start I thought, and the University of Cairo is pretty big on history. So you know history major, study abroad, it made sense to me," said Mauragis. "But it's kind of rocky over there right now so they canceled the program. Definitely without the Arab spring I would have been in Egypt, and I suppose some of the other students here might not be here."
Brad Baughman is also testing the new program in the UAE. All in all he is enjoying his time in the Arab country but does admit that the experience isn't as linguistically immersive as Egypt might have been. "You won't hear as much English in Cairo for sure, there is an American university there but it's not like it is here, we have like 300 nationalities here and everybody speaks English, it's almost a requirement to work here. I do like the fact that there are 300 nationalities here, it's really cool, it's just not necessarily ideal if you're focusing on one language," said Baughman.
As for Sheer she explained that her time with the Arab Spring has only further motivated her to master Arabic. "I'm actually studying in Morocco this fall, it seems pretty safe right now but I guess you really don't know," Sheer said with a slight laugh. "Although I didn't get credit I wouldn't trade my experience for the world. It was the most amazing time of my life and I feel so privileged to have witnessed history."