The Road Less Studied Abroad

Less popular programs in South Africa and Jordan give students unexpected experiences and vastly different social norms.

Of the approximate 2,633 students the Learning Abroad Center (LAC) estimates went abroad at some point in 2016, only a small percent went through to Jordan and South Africa. Think 11 and 22, respectively, compared to the heavy hitters in the European countries. The continuation of a program isn’t only about enrollment levels: While students can get adventure no matter which study abroad program they choose, it’s worth looking past the big three programs of Spain (192 participants from 2016), the United Kingdom (189), and Italy (154)—even in countries that may not seem like the easiest choice at first.

South Africa is often a country that students may choose if they want a more unorthodox study abroad but don’t want to worry about a language barrier. Political science junior Emma Dunn, neuroscience and psychology senior Annika Skansberg, and global studies senior Marna Wal were three of six students signed up to go to the University of Cape Town in fall 2016 through the affiliated Arcadia program. Skansberg enjoyed her time in Cape Town so much that she will be returning to complete her master’s degree in public health.

However, the country was also under the spotlight in the fall because of the disruption its nationwide student protests caused. Several schools such as Fordham University in New York and Miami University in Coral Gables even canceled their 2017 spring programs, and South Africa’s Times Live reported in November that the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) study abroad program dropped from 650 to 290 applications for the first semester of the 2017-18 year.

Photo by Amanda Feddema

Photo by Amanda Feddema

The student protests were commonplace; before the current movement, #FeesMustFall, #RhodesMustFall had barely left the scene. Wal and Skansberg had done enough research to not be too surprised, but the protests’ disruption of daily life completely surprised Dunn. Although Dunn admitted some more cursory research would have made the protests’ prevalence clear, the information and orientation that the students received before traveling to South Africa only fleetingly mentioned the protests. No one, not even the Arcadia or University of Minnesota staff, had guessed the protesters would succeed in shutting campus down for as long as they did, though.

Each morning, Dunn, Skansberg, and Wal would check social media and emails to see if class was canceled. Sometimes they would find out because a protester would come to the residence halls, take over the loudspeaker, and say the protests were happening outside and students could join. The non-violent student protests at UCT were meant to create disorder and shut down the school.

Protesters would block the roads where buses drove; they would go into classrooms and create enough disruption—Dunn recalls a masked protester spraying a fire extinguisher in her class one day—that students and teachers would evacuate. While there were a few protest signs on one of the rare silent protest days, most of the time freedom songs that originated during Apartheid filled the air, their history giving the songs a universal aspect despite the protesters’ different native languages.

The three students supported the cause; Dunn even wrote an editorial to the Minnesota Daily. To them, the protests enriched their knowledge and understanding of the people and culture they had spent almost half a year with. However, they never joined a protest.

“I didn‘t feel like it was my job to join in, in a way,” Dunn said. “My job was to observe and learn, but this is their story and this was their struggle. I wanted to let that happen but make sure I was paying attention.”

After classes were officially cancelled, some South Africans went home to work. Some who stayed fretted about whether they would be able to graduate that semester as planned. Many study abroad students took the time to learn about what was happening and travel—while keeping up with studies, of course.

Photo by Amanda Feddema

Photo by Amanda Feddema

“Cape Town is very international and westernized and modern, and once you step out of that, it’s a different country,” Skansberg said. During one of her extra trips, she visited Coffee Bay Village. It was without running water or electricity, but it was beautiful, and a villager gave her and her friends a tour so they could learn about the way of life there.

Throughout it all, the Arcadia staff on and off the UCT campus kept in contact with the students and with the University of Minnesota’s LAC. The South African history class taught through Arcadia kept going despite class cancellations, the 30 or so students instead cramming into their program director’s office. It was a place to discuss what was happening, but the topic was so ubiquitous it was hard to not hear about it.

Photo by Amanda Feddema

Photo by Amanda Feddema

“I’ve been a part of the Black Lives Matter protests, so this wasn’t the first time I saw people protesting, but it was the first time I saw an issue affecting everybody, and that was really interesting,” Wal said. “All anyone talked about was the protests and stuff. They were either protesting, or they were upset about it; it was the topic of discussion. That’s the difference between there and the U. I don’t know one overarching issue that every single person would be discussing. I guess maybe the election.”

Those kinds of discussions wouldn’t have happened in Jordan. Politics, sex, and religion were topics of conversation avoided on the streets of Jordan when Amanda Feddema studied there as a political science junior last spring. Besides the difference in culture and history, Jordan is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy, or as Feddema put it, “a dictatorship.” A Jordanian friend told her that it was because those topics were what rebellions were built on, and Feddema never heard of an alternative reason, official or not.

The taboo topics weren’t that noticeable, but one time she, her Jordanian roommate, and a couple of fellow Americans were in a taxi, and questions about the Jordan king started bubbling up. Feddema’s roommate turned and said, “We’ll talk about this at home.”

Despite the subtle warning, Feddema kept pushing. In the privacy of homes or on campus, where it was considered more of a free space, the only barrier was the initial discomfort of answering a stranger’s inquiries about your country’s ideology, strengths, and flaws. “On campus we would ask, ‘Do you have problems with secretarial violence, rape?’ ‘Jordan is perfect, no.’ People would eventually open up. It’s a weird thing to ask someone you don’t know, but it kind of helped make friends eventually.” After all, she would get past the small talk and learn about what people really think, what they value.

Photo by Amanda Feddema

Photo by Amanda Feddema

Part of the reason she was able to push so much, Feddema admitted, was because of her American privilege, particularly easy to give because of her long, blond hair. According to Feddema, Jordanians would sometimes allow for more public political discussion between her and her friends because, well, that’s just what Americans do. They talk politics.

Feddema went over with the affiliated CET study abroad program to increase her Arabic language skills. Jordan offered education in standard Arabic as well as the more used Jordanian dialect (compared to, say, Egyptian Arabic dialect) that translated to countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria).

“There’s so many negative stereotypes about the Middle East and those who speak Arabic in general,” Feddema said. “Learning through an American lens [learning about the culture in the English language], you don’t get to dispel those as much. … Through Arabic it’s hard to explain. The words that are used to describe what you’re learning about aren’t the words you’re learning through English. It’s like you’re a baby again. You learn basic words, learn how to apply them, and learn how to apply them in a different way.”

Feddema went to Jordan about a year before the travel warning was enacted. When I mentioned the travel warning to her, she immediately responded by saying one of the main reasons was probably the attack that happened in a large tourist area in December. A shootout occurred in the same area, near the tourist site Karak, a few days later, according to the Dept. of State. It is one of three specific events listed on the travel warning. While her experience by no means belittles the severity of the travel warning, it gives a glimpse of what studying abroad in Jordan could be like past the screaming headlines of newspapers and the haze of association with which people sometimes approach all countries of the Middle East.

Photo by Amanda Feddema

Photo by Amanda Feddema

Jordan is one of three possible countries University of Minnesota students can travel to if they want to study Arabic. However, students wanting to study abroad there next year might not realize it’s available: The programs have been completely erased from the LAC’s website. University policy mandated it after the U.S. Department of State placed a travel warning on the country on Dec. 23, 2016.  Students can still apply to the affiliate Jordan programs through CET and CIEE if they fill out a special petition. The trick is knowing that.

“We’re always reaching the balance,” said Martha Johnson, the assistant dean at the LAC. “Ours are some of the more open and supportive [program] policies you find at any university. We’re committed to keeping as many opportunities as we can and to always balance that with student safety.”

A tumultuous semester and a travel warning aren’t reasons to pick a study abroad program. But they don’t necessarily mean people should automatically write off countries like South Africa and Jordan as study abroad options. You would be surprised by what moments of history you witness and what little things change your perspective.