Middle East unrest disrupts FLAG grants

Students planning to study foreign languages in the Middle East this summer had rude awakenings when the U.S. State Department issued travel restrictions early this month.

By Mina Kang

A high volume of travel restrictions issued by the U.S. State Department in the first week of April is causing headaches for some U of C students who received grants to travel in the Middle East this summer.

As political unrest continues to ripple across North Africa and other parts of the Arab world, students accepted into the University’s Foreign Language Acquisition Grants (FLAG) program, which provides money for students to study language abroad over the summer, have had to contend with a slew of travel warnings recently issued for the region.

Since the beginning of 2011, the State Department has added 20 countries to the Travel Warning list, many of which are in the Middle East. In the last month, Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt have joined the list.

The State Department issues warnings when “long-term, protracted conditions…make a country dangerous or unstable,” according to its website.

Of the nine students who applied for FLAG grants in the Middle East, six selected countries on the warning list as their first choice. The students either had to turn to their second choice country, or, if their second choice was also on the warning list, had to reapply entirely.

Since the announcement, Director of Study Abroad Martha Merritt has met with the applicants individually to discuss travel warnings and how their language study plans might be readjusted. Deadlines have been extended for students affected by the bans to allow for them to reapply.

“These awards have always been subject to the Travel Warning list,” Merritt said in an e-mail. “What is different this year is the greater insecurity regarding political unrest and natural disasters.”

The three students headed for the Middle East who were unaffected by the warnings applied to study in Jordan.

The timing of the restrictions upset several students, since many of the announcements were made weeks after the February 15 FLAG application deadline.

“The travel warnings for Egypt came as I was finishing my application, so that’s why I was planning on having a back-up country. And then I really rushed and made Syria a back-up country. And then when Syria became a Travel Warning country, that really sucked,” said second-year Mark Doss, a FLAG grant recipient.

Like Doss, other FLAG students have decided to go to their back-up countries, or have re applied to lower risk countries.

According to Merritt, students may petition the Study Abroad Risk and Safety Assessment Committee’s travel restrictions, but the Committee is wary of whether a student’s proposal is worth the risks posed by certain countries.

“The committee is looking for an honest and serious recognition by the student of the risks of their particular activity and locale, a thoughtful plan to address adversity that might arise, including access to other support structures, and a reasonable justification that the experience they seek cannot be obtained in another, non-Travel Warning country,” Merritt wrote.

Doss said he heard from Merritt that circumventing travel restrictions is off the table for countries like Egypt and Syria, even with a serious petition.

In spite of all of the inconveniences, Merritt is confident that the FLAG program is in the right for being cautious.

“I’m always interested to hear about their research or language plans in person, and I think that they understand our goals in adding the safety element to their planning,” Merritt said.