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Citing 9/11, more students study in the Middle East

BY ALINA RUBEZHOVA | JUNE 09, 2009 7:26 AM

Many students spend their Friday afternoons downing drink specials downtown. Sarah Chughtai, a UI senior, encountered closed shops and people praying in the streets.

She spent her spring semester in Egypt experiencing the Muslim culture.

Although people have expressed a greater interest in studying abroad in the Middle East, Chughtai still remains one of the few students who actually pursue the experience.

Though numbers remain low, Janis Perkins, the director of the UI Office for Study Abroad, said student interest is increasing.

In the 2000 academic year, prior to the 9/11 attacks, only three UI students studied abroad in the Middle East.

But in recent years, this number soared to more than 50. Preliminary numbers for 2008-09 school year show between 50 and 60 UI students traveling to the Middle East.

According to a 2008 report from the Institute of International Education, study abroad to the Middle East increased by 7 percent nationally. But of all U.S. students studying abroad, those going to Middle East added up to only 1 percent of the total.

U.S. students in Europe constitute 57 percent of those abroad.

Perkins attributed the 9/11 attacks for the increase in Middle Eastern travel.

“It brought a lot of attention to the issues going on in the world,” she said.

Many became more aware of cultural differences and the effect of U.S. policies on other countries, she said.

President Obama gave a June 4 speech at Cairo University in Egypt regarding this trend, as well as U.S. relations with the Muslim world. He addressed bringing more students from the Middle East to the United States with scholarships while also encouraging more American students to go to the Middle East.

In Obama’s speech, he emphasized a desire to reverse the negative attention that 9/11 created, which would decrease the tensions in U.S.-Middle East relations.

Cary Covington, a UI associate professor of political science, praised Obama’s promises to increase student exchange.

“Any program that increases contact across cultures is going to help us understand them better,” he said.

Chughtai hopes to do something with the State Department after graduation. Being an international-studies major with a concentration on the Middle East was the biggest reason she decided to study there.

But students who want to travel to the United States from Middle Eastern countries often face difficulties in obtaining visas.

Within a few weeks of being in Egypt, Chughtai said, she felt comfortable and safe. She believes many hold the wrong perception of the Muslim culture.

“Everyone was friendly,” she said.


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