Whether it is for a semester or whole year, Vassar students who study abroad can discover the challenges and rewards of immersion into a foreign-language. Those who travel to the Middle East to study Arabic encounter a particular set of opportunities and challenges. Ever since the events of the Arab Spring in 2011, the political landscape of the region has changed in fast and major ways. Unrest in certain countries can affect a study abroad program and force some Vassar students studying Arabic to make some difficult decisions. Director of International Programming and Assistant Dean of Studies Susan Correll insisted that it was a priority of hers that students have the opportunity for language and cultural immersion.
“As a Study Abroad Office we are totally committed to having our students learn Arabic both on campus and in an appropriate JYA setting,” said Correll.
Students at Vassar can obtain an Arabic Language and Culture sequence correlate, but not a major. The school has no college program in the Middle East or Northern Africa, and students will typically apply for an outside program. SIT Study Abroad, offers programs in Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco, and the Office of International Programming at Vassar says that students in recent years have also gone to Oman, Israel and Palestine.
Correll keeps track of the State Department’s Travel Warnings and will get in touch with a student if there is a development. Currently students who wish to apply to a program or university in a country with a Travel Warning are required to sign and have a parent sign a waiver. In the case of Thomas Poole ‘14, who went to Tunisia for his Fall semester in 2012 was only two weeks into his stay when the American Embassy in Tunis was attacked the by protesters incensed by a video denigrating the Muslim prophet Muhammad. The American State Department issued a traveling warning, and students in the program were evacuated to the south of France. Later that month they were told they would not be returning to Tunisia or their host families. Poole was upset for being made to leave his host family so abruptly, but also for having a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity cut short. “I will never again be able to have that type of integrated educational, political, and home-stay experience,” said Poole, who added that never thought a personal attack on him was tangible threat. Ruth Campbell ’14 spent a semester last year in Amman, Jordan. She described the types of reactions she would get when she told people where she was going.
“[My] simply studying in the middle east does not mean that my experience was particularly dangerous—I’ve encountered a lot of stereotypes about this and how “brave” I must be (as a woman too! most people say) to study abroad in such a volatile region,” she wrote in an emailed statement.
Campbell did tell the story, however, how in November of last year, some Jordanians took to the streets of Amman in protest the government’s raising of gas prices. Campbell’s program was put on evacuation alert and the students were instructed to stay at home with their host families. After a few days the protests subsided, and Campbell’s semester continued as planned. Even considering the evacuation threat issued by the program, Campbell never felt like she was in any personal danger. She added “I felt safe and exceedingly well cared for throughout my stay.”
Karlin Gatton ‘15, who has a correlate in Arabic Language and Culture, is slated to spend next semester in Jordan. It was always important for her to study Arabic abroad. “I think that Arabic is like a language that is very intrinsically tied to the culture, so I think that like I guess I always thought that being there and being given an opportunity to learn about the culture would help my language get better. And hopefully it would be a really interesting experience,” said Gatton.
Following her parents’ advice though Gatton decided recently to also apply to study in Morocco. This was, as she explained, a precaution in event that the conflict in Syria, which shares a border with Jordan, spills over into a greater region.
Her preference and plans for right now, however, are still firmly set on going to Jordan in January for the Spring Semester.
Correll took care to note that Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world. She said “I think that when you want language fluency you really have to go to a country where you’re speaking it everyday, where you’re reading it everyday, anywhere you’re listening to it everyday.”