Students studying abroad in the Middle East declining

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By Rebecca Morin, The Daily Iowan

Ada Vargas landed in Turkey in February with one goal in mind: understanding a new culture.

After spending months in the country’s largest city, Istanbul, Vargas was faced with a challenge, which not only affected her life but that of millions of people in Turkey.

In late May, protests started forming throughout the country for a variety of reasons including freedoms of the press, expression, and assembly, in addition to concerns about the government encroaching on Turkey’s secularlism.

“When I mentioned to my mom where I wanted to go, I convinced her that conflict was on the complete other side of the country from where I would be residing, leaving no room for fear,” the University of Iowa junior said. “I was definitely afraid, but I trusted that if things would go wrong, I could fend for myself. You’re supposed to grow in ways you would not be able to at home while you’re studying abroad.”

As turmoil in the Middle East continues to rise in several countries — including Egypt and Syria — the number of students studying abroad in that region is slowly declining for the UI.

The most recent numbers show about half as many students study abroad in the Middle East and near that part of the world from the 2010-11 to the 2011-12 school years. Two years ago, 49 students traveled to the region and neighboring regions; however, last year that number dropped to 26 students.

The UI Study Abroad Office has not yet released the number of students studying abroad for the 2012-13 school year.

Although the UI Study Abroad Office does not restrict the areas students may want to travel to, the university uses a private consulting firm to determine if areas are safe for students to study in.

“We encourage students to be well-informed of where they are travelling to and we do not encourage them to go to areas that are not safe,” said Elizabeth Wildenberg De Hernandez, associate director of Study Abroad. “In addition to Department of State warnings and advisories, we have a private consulting firm that does more detailed reviews of areas where we would be sending students.”

Former Ambassador Ronald McMullen, a UI visiting associate professor of political science, said that regardless of the recent conflicts in the Middle East and northern Africa, there are still locations in the region students can choose from that are safe, such as Morocco and Jordan and on the Persian Gulf, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

“Big-city rules apply everywhere,” he said. “Terrorism can strike anywhere and when studying abroad, you must be careful of the environment and do your homework.”

However, as the number of students studying abroad in the region is dropping, there has been close to no change of the number of international students coming to the UI, with some increase throughout the years from specific countries.

“We are getting a few more students from Iran and Iraq,” said Lee Seedorff, the senior associate director of the UI International Student and Scholar Services. “Iraqi students have gone up over the years because the students coming are on a special scholarship from the Iraqi government, and the UI is part of that program.”

Although Egypt was a popular study-abroad option, many students from Egypt do not make up a large population of Middle Eastern students at the UI.

“We’ve always had a few students from Egypt, but from my perspective, I haven’t seen a difference [in Egyptian students studying at the UI],” Seedorff said.

Vargas — who is studying abroad in Morocco — initially thought of studying in a different country; however, because of the recent conflicts, was unable to.

“My ideal locations for immersing myself in Arabic would have been Ramallah, Palestine, Egypt, or Syria because the dialects of Arabic spoken there are the exact ones I will need to interact with the people that I seek to help,” Vargas said. “I would have attended [school in the Middle East] regardless of the conflicts if I were cleared by the UI and my family, but they have been known to think about my personal safety a little more than me.”

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