In November, the Institute for International Education released its Open Doors report, a study which aggregates statistics and trends related to study abroad. The report contains some interesting statistics regarding the Middle East as a destination for American students studying abroad. For many of us in Middle Eastern Studies, the numbers can be shocking since many of us have either studied abroad or worked in the Middle East before matriculating at N.Y.U. Our social circles also tend to include people with similar interests and study abroad experiences so we perceive the numbers of American students in the Middle East to be much higher than they are in reality. For example, the institute’s press release notes http://opendoors.iienetwork.org/?p=150651 that the number of American students who study abroad in the Middle East remains dismally low:
“The number of American students studying in the Middle East increased by 22%, though the region is host to a little more than 1% of the total number of students studying abroad. The report shows the number of U.S. students rising dramatically in such countries as Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, although the total numbers are still very low. Israel still hosts the largest number of students in the region by far, with a 4% increase over the previous year.” (Open Doors Report)
Even Israel barely qualifies as a top twenty five destination for American students studying abroad. These numbers reveal that first-hand knowledge of the Middle East is still limited to an extraordinarily small number of students who venture off the beaten path. Despite a large increase in enrollments in the Middle Eastern languages at American colleges, very few American students make it over to the region where they would be able to practice their language skills and enhance their understanding of Middle Eastern cultures and societies.
I do not think more students should study abroad in the Middle East because it will serve some perceived national security interest, rather; I think it is imperative that Americans be exposed to native Middle Eastern perspectives given our current and past military involvement in the area, the importance of the region in the new world economic order and the centrality of the Middle East to debates about culture and politics. Students who travel to the region are able to offer a more nuanced and informed perspective than television commentators or senators who stay in military bunkers. Given the extremely low percentage of students who study abroad in the Middle East, I shudder when I think about the number of students who are studying in less well-known regions of the world such as Central Asia. One thing is for sure: a larger number of students with first-hand knowledge of the Middle East would yield a correspondingly bigger number of professionals with cultural and political knowledge about this dynamic and fast-changing region.