Report Highlights Challenges of Expanding Study-Abroad Opportunities in the Middle East

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Mar 20 17:00:45 UTC 2009

Friday, March 20, 2009

Report Highlights Challenges of Expanding Study-Abroad Opportunities
in the Middle East

Enrollment in Middle East studies and Arabic-language programs on
American college campuses continues to rise, yet the number of
American students who spend time studying in the Middle East remains
low, according to a white paper issued this week by the Institute of
International Education.

The report, "Expanding U.S. Study Abroad in the Arab World: Challenges
and Opportunities," grew out of a workshop held last year for
representatives of American and Middle Eastern universities that
looked at ways to expand study-abroad opportunities in the Arab world.

Participants attributed the small presence of American students at
Arab institutions to several key factors. They include deep concerns
among American students over safety in the Middle East, questions
among American administrators over the academic quality of many Arab
institutions, and the challenges inherent in Arabic-language

Of the American students who enroll in for-credit study-abroad
programs, only one percent of them—just 2,200 students—study at
institutions based in the Arab world, the report notes. What’s more,
80 per cent of those students are concentrated in three countries:
Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco.

The report says that most American colleges grant credit for
relatively few study-abroad programs in the Middle East, usually only
for those they manage or those that are closely affiliated with other
American institutions.

The workshop, organized by the institute and the Hollings Center for
International Dialogue, convened at Al Akhawayn University, in Ifrane,
Morocco, last March. Representatives came from 19 universities in 11
Arab countries. There were also 14 representatives from American
colleges and organizations that develop study-abroad programs.

In addition to looking at the causes of low enrollments, participants
also tried to come up with some ways to encourage the growth in
study-abroad programs in the Arab world. Among other things, they
encouraged the development of a consortia of Arab-world institutions
to share resources and advice, and to better market themselves to an
American audience.

Although the quality of programs offered varies widely across
institutions in the Middle East, the report concludes that American
college administrators often have unrealistic expectations that a
quality study-abroad program will exactly match American curricula.
The academic culture at Arab institutions may be quite
different—placing an emphasis on memorization over critical
thinking—yet to reject partnerships because of that, the report
states, defeats the larger goals of study abroad, such as exposing
students to a different way of life.

Fears About Safety

But by far, the biggest barriers to the expansions of study-abroad
programs, the report notes, relates to their safety and security in a
region where attacks on Westerners—no matter how statistically
infrequent—remain a huge concern.

American educators’ perceptions of the situation often vary
significantly from those of their Arab counterparts, the report says.

For example, all of the American participants in the workshop said
that students' and parents' concerns about safety in Arab countries
“hindered their institutions from sending more students to the region,
and nearly three-quarters of these participants identified this issue
as a 'great challenge.'”

But more than half of the participants from the Arab world said that
ensuring the safety of more Americans would “not be a challenge at

In fact, the preconceived ideas that many American students have about
Middle Eastern culture—not to mention their cultural missteps—remain a
huge challenge when Arab universities attempt to integrate them into
the classroom.

“Students should not expect that survival strategies that they have
employed in other challenging situations will necessarily work well
for them to adjust to life in the Arab world,” the report says.

Students who travel to the Middle East seeking Arabic-language
instruction also face great difficulty tackling the language itself,
which is extremely complex and has many dialects. Vastly different
dialects are used in formal situations as compared to casual
conversation, and dialects change drastically from country to country.
American students who may have spent years studying Modern Standard
Arabic at their home campuses often find much of what they have
learned is useless when they arrive in the Arab World, the report

“Drawing on these considerations, workshop participants emphasized the
need for students and their sending institutions to make strategic
choices about Arabic study in the region,” the report says.

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