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Immoral Immersion?

News & Features | March 6, 2017

Since the fall of 2000, approximately 421 Tufts students have studied abroad in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, according to the Tufts Study Abroad Office. Despite ongoing wars led by the US, universities like Tufts continue to encourage their students to study abroad there. In fact, in 2010, Tufts signed an agreement with the American University in Cairo to set up a study abroad center in Cairo, though the project was put on hold. Still, American students who choose to go the MENA region are often unaware of the history of study abroad in the region as a missionary endeavor and the ramifications of their role as an American abroad in the current, post-colonial era.

According to Arabic Professor Kamran Rastegar, the study abroad system stemmed from European tourism and missionary endeavors. “Study abroad is couched within a whole culture and history [going] back to young 19th century Europeans engaging in a ‘Grand Tour’ historical antecedent to the modern study abroad—people of means going on trips around southern Europe, eventually extending to [the] Mediterranean, [the] Middle East,” said Rastegar. There are many educational links to the missionary history of the MENA region. For example, the American University of Beirut was established by missionaries who initially refused to teach students Darwinism.

For many students, the greatest pull to study abroad in the MENA region is the study of Arabic. Tufts senior Aviva Herr-Welber studied with Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) in Rabat, Morocco. She said, “I chose to study abroad in the MENA region because it had been the focus of my academics and language study for the past few years…and while studying abroad in this region has the potential to be a more harmful than helpful act on the whole, I believe it would be even worse for me to study this region and claim to have some kind of knowledge or understandings of life there without even spending a few months of my time in the region, at a minimum.”

While gaining a greater cultural understanding of the MENA region and the Arabic language are main incentives for Tufts students to study abroad, this is by no means a universal explanation. For other students, such as senior Bahar Ostadan, who studied at the American University of Cairo (AUC), the pull to the MENA was based on a familial tie to the region. “Because my parents emigrated from Iran which is in the Middle East, I always had a personal affinity to the area. I decided to study abroad in Cairo to be in a metropolitan, cultural hub of the Middle East.”

Underneath flashy study abroad brochures, “immersive” programs in the MENA region promise students an unparalleled cultural experience that will open their eyes to a culture far from their own. Senior Becca MacLean noted how her program, also through CIEE, attempted to offer such an “immersive” experience. However, she did not feel this was particularly true. MacLean reflected that, while some moments throughout her abroad experience felt “immersive,” such as going to the hammam (a traditional Moroccan bath house) with her homestay sister, the majority of her experience felt very fabricated.

“I did feel lot of [my experience was] very structured. Particularly in some of my classes, I felt like the professors were modeling what they thought we [American students] wanted to hear about Morocco. They put the United States on a pedestal, talked about how Morocco was becoming more ‘Western’ and a greater asset to America than ever before, a good investment,” MacLean said. In addition, MacLean explained that many aspects of her program, both in curriculum and excursions to other cities, commodified Moroccan culture. “It’s really problematic”, MacLean noted, when a “culture is marketed a certain way for consumption” by American students. In fact, MacLean said, the idea that an American studying abroad can have this total, “immersive” experience is problematic in itself. She said, “It is such a strange concept to claim [people] can completely immerse into a country that isn’t [their own].”

Herr-Weber agreed. “Immersion” is “a pretty exoticizing term if you think about it, just because we’d never actually ask ourselves if we were having an “immersive” experience in our lives at home, but it becomes such a focal question the minute we move into another cultural space.”

Similarly to MacLean, Herr-Welber acknowledged there are some positive aspects of “immersion” in studying abroad in the MENA region, particularly when it comes to language study. “I do think there’s a value to the idea of immersion when it comes to [learning] a language…fully.” Furthermore, Herr-Welber noted that making an effort to learn the language beyond a classroom setting can also ensure that you don’t exclusively spend time with students on your program. In “making a concerted effort to actually be with the people and the place you came to study in,” you don’t fall into the trap of “just [hiding] in an Anglo bubble with the other abroad students.” Ultimately, Herr-Welber said, “that [would be] the worst kind of influence you can have.”

Although Ostadan did not seek out an “immersive” program, she recognized a misleading tone beneath the study abroad program advertisements. She said, “I noticed how curated the Americans’ experiences were based on the program and self-selecting activities so what they were doing wasn’t an actual experience. A lot of study abroad students would go out all the time, smoked, and drank…which isn’t educating that person about the nuances of the culture.”

“The question becomes whether it’s actually possible for anything to happen organically as it would if you weren’t present as an outsider,” Herr-Welber said. For her, the answer is no. “I was still always trying to make my presence the least amount of an obstacle to whatever was going on. I think there’s also a lot of possibility in just acknowledging your role as an outsider,” she said. “As a person who’s representative of colonization in a lot of ways…[this means] not trying to pretend you’re clean of all these influences and power dynamics that you inevitably carry with you as a US citizen, in my case also White and Eastern European, studying abroad.”

Marwah al-Jilani, a Palestinian-American studying at the University of Oregon, found her mostly White-American study abroad program with the School for International Training (SIT) in Morocco to be problematic. Al-Jilani said, “navigating [my] positionality as an Arab, as Palestinian, was way more stressful than navigating [Moroccan] culture”. Often, White students assumed that she, as an Arab-American, would be more “connected” to Moroccan culture, and would often look to her whenever discussing topics like women wearing Hijabs or Islamic (Sharia) law. “We need an orientation of students who come from marginalized backgrounds; I think that would have been really effective.”

Although Tufts has a “Diversity and Identity in Study Abroad” page with resources and general information, there are no specific orientations offered for people of color or those with other marginalized identities preparing to study abroad.

Yaa Kankam-Nantwi, a Ghanian sophomore at Tufts, noted the stark contrasts between her experience as an international student in the United States and those of her peers. Referring to Facebook photos posted by White study abroad students alongside individuals from host communities, Kankam-Nantwi said, “I’m a part of Strong Women Strong Girls and I’ve never taken pictures with the kids and been like, ‘Working with the American girls.’”

In addition, Kankam-Nantwi spoke to the colonial lens that many Tufts students possess in their approach to study abroad in regions such as MENA and her native country, Ghana. “There are people who go to study in a very ‘Other’ lens…and people who essentialize other countries, especially if [those countries] are non-White, for their cultural growth,” said Kankam-Nantwi, who noticed that many students did not even notice their own stereotypical or colonial ideas, nor those of their host communities that came “from an internalized Western superiority.”

As for her experience studying abroad at Tufts, Kankam-Nantwi spoke of the dominant Western narrative that had influenced her long before she arrived in Medford. “America being the default, I didn’t feel like I was going abroad because [American culture has] always been with me even in Ghana, in England. It’s been with me.”

Nesi Altaras, a Turkish sophomore at Tufts, felt enthusiastic about the prospects of his peers choosing to leave Tufts for the MENA region because of the potential to learn more about a region, of which, he noted, there are few accurate representations or examples in American media. “The people I heard from who have studied abroad in the region usually have interesting insight into the country they went to and don’t have any illusions about knowing everything,” said Altaras.

Regardless of how motivated such students are, the question becomes: is study abroad, particularly in the MENA region, ethical? “Study abroad is a fraught endeavor,” stated Rastegar. Speaking to his own experience, Rastegar continued, “I went on study abroad as an undergraduate, it sparked my interest in the region, but it was also an incredibly uncomfortable experience. I would hesitate to say that that study abroad was doing good in the world, but in my case, it helped me to commit to the work that I do.”

Junior Clara Belk, who studied abroad in Jordan with Middlebury, noted the ethical imbalance of her ability to travel with few restraints throughout the MENA region as an American while her peers could not. “I was living in Jordan which has a huge Palestinian population, and Palestinian and Jordanian cultures have merged a lot, since the occupation of Israel. Part of something that I struggled with when I visited places in Palestine was that I had the ability to go to places [Jordanians and Palestinians] could not.”  Without the right to return, many Palestinian refugees in Jordan are unable to enter Israel and the West Bank. Furthermore, Palestinians cannot move freely within the West Bank or Gaza due to checkpoints and Israeli blockades, respectively. Belk continued, “I was taking advantage of my own privilege in that I could just travel to places for a week and cross the border, whereas other people can’t go back. That was a huge self-realization and contextualization of my own privilege.”

For MacLean, the clear privilege she held in relation to her host community raised a red flag. She noted, “I think it’s problematic that Americans [mostly White] can go into these countries so easily while it is so hard for someone in Morocco to get a visa to go to America. Like, how can it be a ‘cultural exchange’ when we hold all the power and then have an impenetrable country?”

Ultimately, if there exist so many negative implications of studying abroad in the MENA region, is study abroad even worth it? Amahl Bishara, a professor of Anthropology at Tufts with a specialty in the Middle East, thinks the answer is yes, with caveats. “I know many students who have had rich experiences abroad and who have really embraced the opportunity to learn about a new place through academic study and by really living there.” However, she says, it is the responsibility of the student to self-educate before embarking on study abroad. “Students [need to] learn about their programs in advance and ask good questions about the political, economic, and educational effects of their presence for host families, host institutions, and students in their host countries.”

Bishara feels that she has seen Tufts students choosing to study abroad in the MENA region have this accountability. “Tufts students,” she said, “perhaps especially those who choose a challenging study abroad in the Middle East—tend to be open-minded, curious, and willing to work hard.”

Rastegar noted that, in his experience, Tufts students in the Arabic program who study abroad in the MENA region are prepared to be more culturally aware and “understand the limits of their own knowledge and positionalities.”

However, study abroad institutions as well as home universities that support them need to become more accountable in prioritizing this message when marketing study abroad. He said, “I think there’s a humility that needs to be taught in the study abroad experience that would ideally lead to person to person relationships that would be informed by positionalities and intercultural identities, but also allow for an exchange that’s productive for both sides.”