The University of Iowa

UI Students in Morocco

July 2nd, 2013

By Anthony Sudarmawan

Melanie Martin (right) holds an Iowa flag in Morocco

With increasing U.S. interest in the Middle East, as well as the importance of on-going political transitions in the region, some University of Iowa (UI) students find the opportunity to learn Arabic and study abroad there irresistible.

Morocco is a popular tourist destination for Europeans, but it has traditionally held less appeal for vacationing Americans.  Students, on the other hand, are drawn to Morocco's people, their ancient culture and traditions, and the varied landscape, which ranges from the Mediterranean Sea on the northwest coast of Africa to seemingly endless sand dunes, small villages, and modern cities.

UI senior Melanie Martin had never traveled abroad before and had studied Arabic for only one year. However, that didn’t discourage her from jumping onto the streets of Morocco and talking to locals in Arabic. While she was often able to convey her message in Arabic, sometimes she was frustrated when locals responded in French.   As a former French and Spanish protectorate, those languages are far more common than English.  Melanie chose to turn this potential negative into a positive – an opportunity to polish her Arabic.

Melanie is from West Burlington, Iowa, studying psychology at the UI. She is participating in the summer Arabic Language and Culture in Morocco program offered by the University of Minnesota in cooperation with the Arabic Language Institute in Fez, Morocco.  So far she loves Fez and all it has to offer.

Jenna Miller
Jenna Miller

Jenna Miller is also studying abroad in the same program in Fez.  She had been planning to study abroad since her senior year in high school. Ambitious and organized, she started saving money to fund her study abroad 18 months before she left.  And, having experienced international travel previously, she dared to design her own trip to Morocco so that she could arrive early in the program to fend off jet lag.

Although Jenna had taken four semesters of college Arabic, she still encountered a language barrier – dariija, which is different than commonly-taught modern standard Arabic. Jenna’s goal is to overcome the language barrier and be able to better understand Islam and Muslim culture.  

Jenna, from Independence, Iowa, is a senior studying international studies, religious studies, and political science, with minor in Arabic.

In order to prepare students to study abroad in Morocco, the UI and ALIF – Arabic Language Institute in Fez – provide several extensive orientations. They teach students how to prepare themselves before departing, handle culture shock, cope with potential harassment, and more. The UI gives one big group orientation to participants followed by a two-hour, program-specific orientation. When students arrive in Morocco, they have several days of orientation that focus on language and culture. Then, students start to live with a host family and take two semesters of Arabic in the summer program.

The summer Arabic Language and Culture in Morocco program used to be called the Iowa Regents Program in Morocco, with Dr. Denise Filios as the faculty advisor.  The UI switched to Minnesota’s program to allow students to study abroad in Morocco year-round, regardless of the number of students who signed up. In the past, the UI had to cancel the program if the number of participants was insufficient. In addition, the program offered by the University of Minnesota was nearly identical to the UI’s.

Last year there were eight undergraduate and five graduate students from the UI involved in this program. This year, there are six UI students participating. To learn more about the program visit:

Arabic: A Critical Language

Onalee Yousey
Onalee Yousey

Students typically choose their study abroad destination, but that was not the case for UI senior Onalee Yousey, who applied to the extremely competitive Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program, sponsored by the State Department. Since Onalee applied for the Arabic program, she could have been sent to Jordan, Morocco, or Oman. The State Department selected her to go to Tangier, Morocco.

Before leaving for Morocco, Onalee had to take the Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI), and she placed in the advanced beginning/intermediate low bracket. For Onalee, this was her first time ever leaving the U.S. Traveling internationally for the first time can be very overwhelming. One has to learn international airline regulations, deal with immigration, and communicate with strangers who don’t speak English. Nevertheless, with three months of preparation, her love of learning new languages and cultures, and Arabic and Spanish in her pocket, Onalee overcame these challenges.

But the real challenge of studying abroad surfaced when she landed in Morocco. She discovered that Moroccans speak a different Arabic dialect – dariija (the same dialect that caused Jenna problems), and she was restricted to one hour of English every day. However, with her love of Arab culture and food, as well as her long-term goal to use Arabic as a tool in the field of political science, she feels that she's more than ready to tackle any hurdle on the road.

Onalee, from North Branch, Minnesota, is a senior majoring in political science and international studies. The State Department fully covers her expenses while abroad. You can follow Onalee’s adventures at  

For more information about Morocco, visit:

UI students who wish to learn more about studying abroad in Morocco should visit with Study Abroad Advisor Amy Bowes. Call 319-335-0353 to schedule an appointment.