|Davidson in Syria? Students’ Summer Success Points to Possibilities for Spring 2012
December 17, 2010
by John Syme
|(l-r) Nick Norena '11, Evan Carter '12, Joseph Sills '12, Brian Bouchard '12 taught the finer points of DUFF (Davidson Ultimate Frisbee Folk) to young friends in Aleppo, Syria.
The academic community in Damascus, Syria, has long served as an influential global hub of Middle East culture. Now, Davidson College is poised to lend its unique liberal arts voice to the conversation. Three Davidson professors traveled to Syria last May to meet with officials about plans for a Davidson in Syria program.
"We are working closely with university and government officials in Syria for the strongest program possible for all concerned," said Associate Dean for International Programs and McGee Director of the Dean Rusk International Studies Program Chris Alexander. He traveled to Syria with Assistant Professor of Arabic Rebecca Joubin and Professor and Chair of History Jonathan Berkey.
"You can't have any conversation about the economic and diplomatic future of that region of the world without Syria being a large part of that conversation," Alexander said. "It's a very powerful player in a crucially important region."
Davidson in Syria is targeted to begin spring semester 2012 as a fully-structured, four-course, bi-annual Davidson semester based at the prestigious University of Damascus. The program would begin with about 15 students from Davidson, its partner Morehouse College, and other colleges and universities, mostly likely member institutions of the Associated Colleges of the South.
"This is an opportunity to receive Arabic language training at one of the best facilities in the world for non-native speakers," said Alexander. Far more than just the language, he said Davidson in Syria will encompass opportunities for in-depth studies of Syrian and Arabic culture and history, as well as for structured travel within Syria.
"Davidson students in a very real way could be public diplomats," Alexander said.
Already, eight Davidson students have had a taste of the possibilities, in independent study last summer in Damascus accompanied by Joubin, who lived in Damascus for six years. Her cultural expertise in daily life there was important in many ways, students agreed.
"A lot of things have converged to inform our ideas of Syria in the 21st century that just aren't true anymore," said Joseph Sills '12. "It was nice to be able to tell my parents she's been there!"
Joubin has an educational background similar to her Davidson students. She received her bachelor's degree from the College of William and Mary, and completed her master's and doctorate at Georgetown University and Columbia University, respectively.
"Currently there are very few American students studying Arabic in Damascus, as most study in Jordan or Egypt, considered to be safer," she said. "The U.S. media continues to build a negative image of life in Syria, and this makes travel there intimidating for many Americans. However, I lived in Damascus for about 6 years and always felt extremely safe there. I was there through the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and also the 2006 war in Lebanon, for example. I was continually struck by the generosity and warmth of the Syrians. Not once was I made to feel unwelcome, and Syrians always differentiate between American people and American politics in the Middle East."
Based on the Davidson students' success last summer, she is enthusiastic about what a Davidson in Syria program could mean---for both Davidson and for Syria.
"Davidson students are open-minded, filled with integrity, curiosity, intelligence, and the spirit of service. Last summer all eight of the Davidson students chose to live with a family in the Old City even though they knew that the experience would not always be easy. They wanted to fully immerse themselves in the culture and language in Syria. They also had an honor code among themselves to speak Arabic as much as possible, even with one another.
"In addition to intensive Arabic language study, each student found his or her way in the city. Some taught English to children in Yarmuk, others volunteered at an orphanage for handicapped children in the Old City. In touching the lives of those around them, they represented their own culture in a very positive way, which is integral to building relationships between cultures, especially those where misunderstandings exist.
"By sending Davidson students to Syria during a spring semester program, we can play an important role in building trust and understanding between the two countries," Joubin said.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,900 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.