Over spring break, Director of International Studies Carolyn Sorkin and Director of Jewish and Israel Studies Professor Jeremy Zwelling both traveled to the Middle East. Sorkin visited two programs in Amman, Jordan to look into expanding the list of University approved study abroad options, and Zwelling visited Jerusalem, Israel to prepare for the reopening of the Wesleyan program in Israel.
The University currently has only six approved programs of study in the Middle East: five in Israel and one in Egypt. Sorkin says that students have expressed interest in studying in Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and Oman.
“We don’t send a ton of students to the Middle East,” Sorkin said. “We are looking to expand the list of options.”
According to Sorkin, study abroad has doubled in the past eight years, now with 45 to 50 percent of students heading abroad. This does not include summer programs.
Ian Renner ’08 spent his entire junior year abroad in Egypt and would have loved to go to Lebanon, Syria or Jordan.
“I tried to find other programs but I ended up settling for Cairo because it’s University sanctioned,” Renner said.
Despite this, Renner describes his experience as a positive one.
“It was a very eye-opening experience that countered the anti-Arab and Islamic ideas that we have here in America,” Renner said. “For me it opened my eyes about how we think of them being anti-American, anti-Semitic and anti-homosexual, and how that is largely not true.”
Sorkin will present the two new options in Amman to the Education Policy Committee, who will reach a decision about the sites in Jordan by the end of the year. She believes that both programs are strong and have a good chance of making the approved list.
“Jordan is a safe country, in terms of its crime rate.” Sorkin said. “It’s also a bit more modern than other countries in the area, being female or gay may not be as much of an issue… on the other hand, it’s a very difficult place to be Jewish.”
In 1973 the University started a study abroad program in conjunction with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for students wanting to become more advanced in Hebrew. To Zwelling’s surprise, the program was able to stay open through the First Intifada, a period of unrest from 1987to 1993.
“We were amazed we were able to do that,” Zwelling said.
The program was closed in 2000 due to safety concerns centering on the Second Intifada. However, the University now feels that it can once more safely administer the program.
“First of all, people are getting used to Israel as it is now,” Zwelling said. “This is the Israel that has been in place for seven years. This is what Israel is and what it’s going to be for seven to ten years.”
Georgia Flaum ’11, who visited Israel for six weeks when she was a high school student, is interested in the program. Flaum’s group had two armed bodyguards and had to cancel plans for two evenings because of bombings. Despite this, Flaum wasn’t worried.
“There was never a time when we felt a threat,” Flaum said. “It wouldn’t stop me from going there.”
Zwelling says that the program initially will not be as robust as it was in the past because the University needs to gauge student interest.
Many students are hoping the University will be able to open a Middle East Studies Program. For some, however, this has come too late.
“I wanted to learn about the Middle East and Arabic, and Wesleyan has failed me in those respects,” Renner said.
For the 2008-2009 academic year, WesMaps lists two Arabic language courses as well as two courses in non-Israeli history—”The Rise and Fall of the Middle East in the Twentieth Century and The Ottoman Empire, 1280-1922.”
Sara Swetzoff ’09 took two years off from school to learn Arabic and travel around the Middle East visiting such countries as Egypt, Syria and Jordan. She is currently studying abroad at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
“The reason why I did not choose to go to the Middle East through a study-abroad program is because there is nowhere to go that has a full Arabic curriculum,” Swetzoff wrote in an e-mail. “We can go to Morocco or Cairo and study Arabic but the rest of the course work is in English. The other part of the problem was that I wouldn’t have been ready to take a full course load in Arabic, even if we did have that kind of abroad option, because Wes only has two levels of Arabic that are overcrowded and very slow-going (non-intensive).”
Swetzoff would love to see the University expand its Arabic offerings with dialect classes as well as literature courses on Islamic texts and more history offerings. Renner agrees.
“I’m glad Roth’s becoming interested in the area, but it’s long overdue,” Renner said. “It’s a valuable perspective we need at this University.”