For many years, SUNY Cortland students interested in studying abroad to learn Arabic were directed to American University in Cairo, Egypt.
The Arab Spring of 2011, which resulted in a revolution and an overthrow of the government, changed the College’s approach. For safety reasons, many colleges and universities, including SUNY Cortland, have not sent students to Cairo since.
But the student desire for Arab language immersion never went away.
Mary Schlarb, SUNY Cortland’s director of international programs, and her colleagues have heard from students looking for advice on where they could study Arabic overseas. While waiting for the situation in Cairo to stabilize, they have sought additional options.
That may change soon. Schlarb returned from a week-long trip to Oman in May. Through the Center for International Learning in Muscat, Oman, SUNY Cortland hopes to offer an immersive study abroad experience for students interested in learning the Arabic language, absorbing the Omani culture and meeting other students from around the world.
“They provide courses and transcripts and evaluations as well as housing, orientation and excursions,” Schlarb said. “They took me around to a lot of the places where they take students. It’s not just formal courses. There is also a peer system where three afternoons a week they meet with a peer who is more or less in the same age range as some of them. It’s a one-to-one time for conversation in Arabic so they show them around and invite them into their homes.
“That’s what really impressed me with the school is the cultural component,” Schlarb continued. “The students are living together and they’re not all Americans. They are from all over Europe, mostly. They really have a model.”
Rachel Miller ’15 and Frederik Tremblay ’17 studied at the Center for International Learning during the summer of 2014 through the College’s Overseas Academic Program. After learning that Miller and Tremblay had enjoyed their experiences in Oman, Schlarb realized that she might have found the solution for a foreign Arabic language program.
Oman, a nation of 4.5 million people on the eastern end of the Arabian Peninsula, is often rated as one of the safest nations in the Middle East. Muscat, the capital, is a popular tourist destination for Europeans.
Schlarb met with members of the Center for International Learning staff as well as some of the students during her recent trip. The State Department also sends members of its Foreign Service Institute to Oman for Arabic language studies.
Developing a “toolbox” of how to adapt to life in foreign countries is one of Schlarb’s biggest pieces of advice for students studying abroad. Schlarb’s visit allowed her to experience Oman from a first-person perspective. She can share her tips on how to navigate the visa process in the airport, how to buy food and how to get the most out of the immersive one-on-one learning experiences outside the classroom.
“One, I went to make sure it’s a good facility and that the conditions are good. Safety is No. 1,” Schlarb said. “Second is the academic piece.”
Schlarb foresees SUNY Cortland sending a handful of students to Oman each semester and for summer sessions in the years to come. If interest grows, it’s possible for a professor to take a group of students to Oman using the Center for International Learning as a home base.
Students who study Arabic may find career opportunities in politics or for humanitarian causes as a translator. Others have combined studies in Arabic and geology to find work in the oil and energy fields.
Even if studying abroad in Oman doesn’t directly lead to a job, Schlarb feels the experience can be unforgettable for SUNY Cortland students. Not only would they learn a language and see a new place, they have a chance to connect with other young people from Oman and the rest of the world.
“Knowing a foreign language is going to help most people have a leg up in whatever career they choose,” Schlarb said. “Having that immersive language experience is really helpful, not just in fluency but also in dialects. For our students going, I think that’s what they’re looking for. They’re interested in the language. It’s not your typical student who wants to go to Oman. I think they’re interested in the language and the culture and talking to some of the students there. They see the critical importance of building bridges around the world during this difficult time.”