By Alicia Hatch, The Daily Iowan
The University of Iowa has seen a substantial increase over the last five years in the number of students studying abroad in the Middle East, mirroring a national trend.
Only five students traveled to that region five years ago; last year, the number ballooned to 55.
“There is definitely an interest in the study of the Middle East lately,” said Janis Perkins, the director of UI Study Abroad. “I think it’s because it’s an area of the world that our country is generally focused on.”
Though the most frequently selected programs are in European countries, the Middle East programs’ popularity is increasing every year, Perkins said.
UI senior Laura Wonderlin said she is anxious to travel across the world to spend three and a half months in Amman, Jordan, in less than a month.
“I am more excited than nervous,” said the 20-year-old.
After a year of studying Arabic behind her, she said, she is ready to live among the many cultural differences and gain knowledge from the trip.
Wonderlin isn’t the only one who’s taken an interest in Arabic at the UI.
During the 2004-05 school year, 86 students enrolled in Arabic classes. Five years later, that number grew around 66 percent to 143 during the 2009-10 school year. There are currently 99 students enrolled in the fall semester alone.
The region has garnered more attention recently because of the war in Iraq, the area’s oil resources, and its location as the “crossroads between the East and the West,” said UI political science Professor Vicki Hesli, who teaches Introduction to Politics of the Muslim World.
“This region has always been important,” she said. “It simply wasn’t on the strategic radar of most citizens until after the 9/11 attacks on Washington, D.C., and New York City.”
The Institute of International Education reported that from 2002 to 2007, the number of students studying abroad in the Middle East has increased from 562 to almost 3,400.
Egypt, followed by Morocco, is the most popular Middle Eastern country that UI students visit, Perkins said.
Middle Eastern students are traveling to Iowa as well. Last year, 124 students from 15 different Middle Eastern countries studied abroad at the UI, said Scott King, the director of the International Student & Scholar Services. Of those students, 24 — 19 percent — came from Jordan.
The safety of students abroad depends on their location and activities, Perkins said, particularly during their time apart from organizers. And in the sometimes tumultuous region of the Middle East, safety can be a concern.
“There are certainly dangerous areas in the Middle East, and students can run some risks traveling independently in these areas,” she said.
Official study-abroad sites work to ensure the safety of traveling students, she said.
Each year, a little more than 1,000 UI students study abroad. Around 40 percent spend a semester abroad, and 5 percent travel for the whole academic year. Another 40 percent of students travel during the summer, and 15 percent go on a winter program.