Student experiences Middle East firsthand

Second study abroad trip expands senior's knowledge

“The value of studying abroad is in the chance to travel and get more than a simple tourist experience. It’s an opportunity to seek an understanding of the history and culture of a place and, if you’re lucky, to catch a glimpse into the hearts of its people.”

Many universities give their students the opportunity to study abroad throughout the world. This past semester, Oklahoma Christian University senior Ben Peterson took his second semester abroad, this time to the Middle East.

Many people try to ignore the Middle East due to its conflict in culture, faith and politics. Peterson, however, took the opportunity head-on to study abroad in this diverse culture from August to December.

Department Chair of History and Political Science Dr. John Maple informed Peterson about the program, knowing Peterson’s interest in the Middle East.

“Oklahoma Christian is a member of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities,” Maple said. “Collectively running a number of study abroad programs, one of which is the Middle East program. According to one of the CCCU’s officials, it is one of the most difficult programs to get into.”

While Peterson was studying abroad, he traveled to Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Israel and Syria, but most of his time was spent in Cairo, Egypt.

“The first week we had orientation,” Peterson said. “We did things like visit a mosque and get to know local Egyptians. We got to do a few things with them like bowling and have them over at the villa where we stayed.”

According to Peterson, after the week of orientation the students had class four days a week. Their studies included the language of Arabic and the study of Islam. The students also participated in service projects.

“My service project was teaching English at this place to refugees mostly from Sudan,” Peterson said.

While traveling throughout the Eastern hemisphere, Peterson witnessed an unforgettable event that both humbled and shocked him.

“At one point there was a bombing near our hotel in Turkey; it was pretty sobering,” Peterson said. “Thankfully, most of us were away on an island at that time, but it was amazing to think that some people on our trip were really close to the bombing when it happened. I will never forget the moment we heard about it.”

According to Peterson, Cairo differed from his European trip in that the whole group traveled together everywhere in the Cairo program.

“Unlike the program to Vienna, we did not have free travel,” Peterson said. “We traveled as a group everywhere because we were in the Middle East. We got to go on our own to Alexandria, but other than that, we took the whole group to all the different countries, which made the group connect better.”

According to senior Mary Diggs, who traveled with Peterson to Vienna in the fall of 2008, Peterson proved a beneficial traveling partner.

“Ben is a huge encourager, and he really cares about everyone in the group, which you can see when traveling with him,” Diggs said. “I am so thankful I was able to travel with him for three months; he has become a really great friend.”

According to Maple, Peterson is one of 32 students chosen through a prestigious application process narrowed down by the CCCU program and was recently accepted to be an intern with the same program.

“He will be going with this year’s group to be an assistant to spend the entire two semesters in Cairo,” Maple said. “This is obviously a testimony of the quality of this young man.”

While the trip was beneficial during the time Peterson was over in the Middle East, he also gained further perspective coming back.

“The program was always telling us that we weren’t going to learn everything about Islam and about the Middle Eastern culture,” Peterson said. “They kept saying how they hope this serves as a mirror to help understand our own culture and society by looking at other ones.”

Peterson’s view of the Middle East has changed due to the program, and he has gained respect and connections to people he could not have had without studying abroad.

Peterson was able to form friendships with his neighbors in Cairo, including a British man that worked in the Cairo educational system.

According to Peterson, the man was not religious and, thus, led him to find the commonality in someone so different from him.

“It is somewhat humbling realizing that there are a lot of problems and people solving big issues,” Peterson said. “It was cool to build some solidarity with him and the Muslims there, even though we have different beliefs. I would not say that I respect Islam more, but I did learn to respect Muslims individually a lot.”

By Morgan Edwards, OC Talon

Ben’s blog about his CCCU Middle East experiences can be found at http://blogs.oc.edu/ben.