For the last few years the study abroad community has encouraged a trend to send many more students to non traditional destinations. Non traditional equals  Africa, those Asian countries where programs have been small scale or non existent and of course, the Middle East.  The federal government has also pushed this agenda through official speeches and the creation of the Critical Language Scholarship Program.

So here we are with hundreds of American students effectively trapped in Cairo while Egyptians take to the streets to oust a repressive government long supported by the United States.  Will this mean a rethink? Will the study abroad community continue to speak publicly about encouraging new destinations while quietly shifting resources back to western Europe and Latin America? I hope not.

Because the events in Tunisia and Egypt remind me of my own crisis ridden times as a foreign student in Turkey. While I was there Turkey invaded Cyprus bringing it to the brink of war with Greece.  Then Iran, Turkey’s geographical neighbour exploded in the Islamic revolution that changed world politics forever.   However,  as the students in Egypt know, it is not really next door that counts, what matters most is what happens at home. So despite the discomfort engendered by US policy in those areas, my problem as an American student was not Iran or Cyprus but the turmoil in Turkey.

Bombs were regularly planted on college campuses (mine was thankfully spared) murders between opposing political groups were common.  The country went into shock as a well respected journalist was assassinated and the eastern part of the country was slipping into chaos.  All the while the government switched rapidly back and forth between the two official parties with no effect. They were like two drivers constantly grabbing the reins of a stagecoach from one another.  But the reins were connected to  runaway horses which neither had the strength or skill to control.

Unlike the events in Egypt these were apparently not hugely newsworthy as far as the American media was concerned. My parents were clearly not seeing this on the news or they would have demanded my return. As for me, although the situation was frighteningly tense at times it did not stop my enjoying my year abroad. I was after all an enthusiastic student and this was not war… but it was not peace either and I was on my own.

I was in Turkey for two years:  first as a student then as an English teacher.   Although as a student I was on an exchange program sponsored by my own university, unlike many students today I was not in a US university facility or dorm.  I was the sole student on the program. I went to a Turkish university (with classes in English) and I lived in the community. So to be safe and informed I had to “become Turkish.”  I needed to understand the politics, learn the language quickly and well, dress and act so as not to attract attention and to make friends among Turkish people  –  not just my fellow students but my neighbours and local shopkeepers as well.  As a result, I received a unique cultural education that I could never have imagined. And what I learned was often sobering — for example about another form of policing.

Since I have not visited Turkey in many years  I cannot reflect on the current police force but back in 1978 I learned not to project onto Turkish police the mission and habits of American police.  In Turkey police held considerable powers but no accountability to the public. One of my best friends, an architectural student, was arrested and beaten by police for taking pictures of an Ottoman door.  As he had committed no crime they never charged him. Instead after holding him all night they called his father, who arrived with cash to buy his son’s freedom.  Just as it felt Turkey was moving inexorably into anarchy the army stepped in and I discovered that like the Tunisians and Egyptians, the Turkish army had a good reputation among the people.  The streets were safer but also stricter and my constant language study paid off as shoot to kill curfews were only announced in Turkish. (At major hotels the doormen kept their foreign guests from venturing out of doors.)  When the day came for me to return to the United States, life was more relaxed and a lot safer and that made it even harder to leave.

We want US students in Egypt right now to be safe and stay safe but part of me envies the terrific opportunity they have to hear  first hand accounts of an Egypt that much of the world has ignored.  When they return, US students will have a wonderful opportunity to help enlighten others for whom Egypt is just a tourist destination.   I would not  trade my student days in turbulent Turkey for anything.  You can learn more about a country in a day with a crisis than you can in six months without one.   When I left Turkey I felt the country had become part of me.   The same is no doubt happening to students in Egypt right now. They are learning about Egypt from the inside (especially if they are using their Arabic) and it has increased their learning experience one hundredfold. So there is no need for the foreign study community to fall back on France. In part,  because – let’s face it –  France is also no stranger to unrest! (Streetwiser)

Postscriptum: My experience in Turkey was lesson one in the inadequacy of standard cultural briefings including the one on culture shock. The eventual result was a book.