Oberlin Must Maintain Relationship with American University of Cairo

The Arabic language has had a tough run at Oberlin over the last few years. Instructor of Arabic Mahmoud Meslat offers courses in the language, but students who want to learn it beyond beginner levels are limited by the lack of accessibility to further advancement. In 2019, when the College made the decision to shut down the Arabic language program and abruptly end the contract of a long-term instructor, it indicated to concerned students that Study Away opportunities should compensate for their losses on campus, but provided no options afterward. A study abroad opportunity ultimately came together as an individual initiative from Chair of International Affairs and Professor of History Zeinab Abul-Magd through negotiations for a student exchange agreement with American University in Cairo, Egypt. At AUC, Oberlin students are offered the opportunity to take either non-intensive Arabic language courses at any level or enroll in an intensive language program, allowing them to build advanced language proficiency rapidly. Students also have access to all of AUC’s other courses, regardless of discipline. 

College third-year Boo Elliott and I decided to take advantage of this opportunity. We are currently enjoying rigorous Arabic language courses taught by native speakers, and we have found our language skills strengthened not only by our access to language classes but also by our engagement with the language on a daily basis. It has also been a remarkable opportunity to actively participate in one of the many cultures that speaks Arabic, inspiring both of us to work toward declaring a minor in the Middle East and North Africa Studies department upon our return, something we will now be capable of with an Arabic language background.

“My experiences both on and off campus have been accompanied by some of the most kind and welcoming people I’ve met, and I am so grateful for this opportunity,” Elliott said. “I feel like I’ve learned more in the last few months than I could ever have thought possible.”

It was with this overwhelmingly positive experience in mind, then, that I was horrified to hear the news that Oberlin may fail to uphold its end of the exchange agreement with AUC as our applications had been accepted and we were preparing to move abroad. Nearly one month after our arrival to AUC in late January, Professor Abul-Magd received a concerning email from the Office of Study Away that a decision had been made to put a hold on or cancel the agreement entirely with the justification that housing was limited in Oberlin dorms.

Along with Professor Abul-Magd, Elliott and I were unsettled. 

“Learning that we were here without any finalized agreement was startling, especially when I learned that a final copy [of the agreement] had been provided to Oberlin in October, before I had even submitted my application,” Elliott said. 

For Oberlin College to allow two students to attend AUC and benefit from its many programs, particularly Arabic language programs, and then to fail to uphold its end of the bargain over the claim of lack of housing — a relatively minor, solvable problem — demonstrated opportunistic and arrogant behavior with no concern for reciprocity and respect for the institution.

Since the original dissolution of the Arabic department’s advanced program in favor of online courses in 2019, both the Arabic and MENA programs have faced great difficulties in ensuring students have complete access to the education they deserve and anticipate. Hard work by students and faculty contributed to what would eventually become the incredible program I currently have the pleasure of attending, but the jeopardization of this opportunity leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

That said, I have the pleasure of sharing positive news: Over the course of late February and March — after much student and alumni pressure — the agreement was eventually signed. Under the new agreement, the exchange program between the two schools will run for five years and will automatically renew. Hearing the news was wonderful, and I would like to extend special thanks to Associate Dean Elizabeth Hamilton. She immediately took matters into her own hands with President Carmen Twillie Ambar’s support. Together, they worked hard to demonstrate sincere commitment to students’ interests in studying Arabic abroad and to the agreement with AUC. It is with Hamilton’s passionate leadership that all of us involved feel great hope for the future of the partnership and the Arabic language and MENA programs. 

“I really appreciate how communicative and reassuring Ms. Hamilton has been about the process.” Elliott said. “I wish there was greater transparency … not just in regards to AUC, but in terms of the support and stability of Oberlin’s MENA department.”

I strongly urge the College to ensure this partnership is maintained. A relationship with AUC is invaluable, not only to students but to Oberlin as a whole. To encourage a diverse community with respect and concern for all people, Oberlin must ensure its student body has complete access to communication, study, and experiences with diverse peoples, cultures, ideas, and languages. The agreement with AUC can successfully achieve all of this, but it requires the cooperation and, most importantly, the trust and transparency of the Oberlin College administration in the coming years.