Sharing Global Perspectives: The Lasting Impact of the Middle East Studies Program

Sharing Global Perspectives: The Lasting Impact of the Middle East Studies Program

Spring 2023

A conversation with Meagan Dooley and Annie Vincent

For 30 years, the CCCU’s Middle East Studies Program (MESP) has provided hundreds of students from Christian colleges across North America a chance to participate in a Christ-centered, academically rigorous experiential program in a unique and important context. Over the decades, MESP’s goal has remained the same: to help students listen, learn, and grow in understanding and loving Middle Eastern neighbors both inside and outside the classroom.

Since its founding in 1993, the program has been housed in several locations, first in Cairo, Egypt, then in Jerusalem, Israel, before moving to its current location in Amman, Jordan, in 2014. Hundreds of CCCU students from across the academic spectrum of majors have experienced the program and come home forever changed.

To capture a glimpse of how MESP has impacted students’ career and faith journeys, the CCCU orchestrated an opportunity for two alumni to share with each other how MESP has impacted them: Meagan Dooley, a graduate from Seattle Pacific University who attended the program in Spring 2013 when it was based in Jerusalem, and Annie Vincent, a graduate of Cairn University who attended the program in Spring 2019 in Amman.

As a transfer student who was having a hard time finding community and also wanting to find an opportunity to put her Arabic studies into practice, Dooley was intrigued by the way CCCU’s GlobalEd programs brought together students from different universities. She calls her experience at MESP “the most transformational experience of my life” and knew that she wanted to come back to the region as soon as possible. She applied for a Fulbright scholarship and was awarded one in Turkey. During her time there, she reconnected with MESP when a cohort traveled to Turkey; the next year, she moved to Jordan to serve as a program assistant for MESP for the 2015-16 academic year. After that, Dooley completed a master’s at Georgetown University (which included fieldwork in Jordan), and now she works for Tetra Tech, a contractor for USAID, where she works on a global project that does rural land tenure reform and natural research rights in eight countries.

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Vincent knew from an early age that she wanted to study and work in the Middle East and had made several visits before beginning her studies at Cairn. When she learned about MESP, she was immediately drawn to the program, and her time there cemented her desire to be in the region long-term. She currently teaches English to seventh and eighth graders in Jordan, where she says she gets to use the lessons she learned at MESP every day. “I’m working in a more challenging school environment where you come in expecting a cultural gap,” she says. “MESP helped me bridge that gap.”

What follows are some reflections Dooley and Vincent shared during their conversation with Alan Haven, the CCCU’s director of marketing. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Alan Haven: What are some of the lessons learned or memories you have that stand out to you from your time at MESP?

Meagan Dooley: The Middle East is a culture of hospitality and food that I connected to deeply. One of the iconic moments from my MESP time was during our homestays in Israel-Palestine, where I lived with an Arab Palestinian Christian family for a week, sitting down and sharing meals and fellowship with them, before living with a Jewish Orthodox family and doing Shabbat with them. That was significant [for me] … sitting there and thinking about these cultures, faiths, and people who on the surface look quite different than us, but at the end of the day have a shared humanity. … That’s one of the biggest things that MESP offers students: putting you into a culture and a faith tradition that’s different from your own and allowing you to learn from those differences. But also [highlighting] the throughline of this common humanity: we are not nearly as different as we like to believe. That reality sticks with me all these years later.

Annie Vincent: The relational side of things is the heart of MESP. The focus is on experiential learning, where it’s not just reading a book — it’s going and seeing the places that your books talk about, or talking with people who have lived through these things and hearing about things from the source. We’re learning about Islam from Muslims — we’re not reading about it or listening to a Christian speaker talk about Islam. We’re listening to people who believe it in their own lives and practice it every day. That was eye-opening [to me]. It lowered the barriers I had in my own heart that I didn’t realize were there, barriers I had between myself and Muslims. I thought, “They’re different; they’re separate. I don’t want to let them in.” I had no idea these feelings were in me. I didn’t realize that I held these beliefs until I came here, and I felt a bit of friction. Then I discovered sweet friendships with Muslims.

For instance, once a few friends and I went to a cafe just to read and do homework. As we were about to leave for dinner, the owner and waiter invited us to share this huge platter of mansaf, a traditional Jordanian meal. They insisted we sit and eat with them. They had ordered it for us. We had no idea it was coming, but then they sat with us, and talked with us, and laughed about eating with our hands because you can do that here. It was such a fun moment of realizing this culture is so sweet. That’s one of many stories people going out of their way to take care of us and have fun moments with us.

Dooley: When I was in grad school, I came to Amman for the summer, and my AC broke. It was like 102 degrees, and I had not slept because it was so hot. I went to the old part of town where the repair shops were, and I didn’t know the words for broken air conditioning heating element in Arabic. When I finally communicated [what I needed], he said, “Oh, no. We have to fix this for you now!” He didn’t sell the parts, but he spent two hours helping me find an AC repairman who could fix the unit. I’m not sure anyone would have done that in the U.S. Here I was, a white, blonde, tall stranger who sticks out like a sore thumb, and these strangers went out of their way to make sure that I was cared for. I think it’s such a beautiful illustration of the Gospel and humanity from people who are not of your faith. That those artificial boundaries we have in the U.S. are broken down and reconstructed before your eyes.

Your experiences reflect the core of what we hope all our programs do: students immersed in a cultural experience while also integrating Christian faith. How did MESP affect your faith? How is it still shaping you?

Vincent: This was the first time that I’d been so immersed in a Muslim culture with the intention to learn from it. That was not the goal of my other trips to the region. But [at MESP] we were there to learn, and that was it. [We were told,] “You can ask questions, but you are not trying to prove you’re right. You are just here to learn.” Having that approach to a completely different religion and worldview completely different is challenging because sometimes we want to say, “No, that’s not right.” Yet I had to slow down, think about it [Islam], and hear from people who truly believe it.

I started to question my own heart. I remember visiting the mosque and just praying to the Lord, “Whoever you are, show me,” and holding that with open hands, wanting to know the truth and see who the Lord is. Throughout the course of the semester, I really came to a firmer conviction that I believe in the God of Christianity. There were just so many things I came to believe and trust more deeply. I came to trust that we’re allowed to ask questions and that God is able to handle those questions. That was a transformative thing in my own faith.

In this program, you grapple with tough, deep questions that maybe we’ve just accepted for a long time. Maybe these are things that we’ve been taught since Sunday school. It’s a challenge. But when you’re able to come and know where you stand, that is a beautiful, faith-building thing.

I know that in the work I do now, in a predominantly Muslim school, I really need to know what I believe. If I’m talking with other ladies at the school about different celebrations and ideas, I need to know what I think, and I need to have already wrestled before I get into that room. Not to prove I’m right, but just to stand in my own faith. Having wrestled in a Christian environment, within a Muslim culture, is really beautiful, especially now knowing with confidence who the Lord is.

Dooley: I love how the MESP brings together people from different backgrounds and traditions in schools within the U.S., and then plops them in this other world. Programs like MESP put you outside of your comfort zone. Our CCCU schools tend to be pretty homogenous: a lot of white people who look like me from similar middle-class upbringings. I don’t know that that sets us up for the real diverse, multicultural, multi-faith, multi-ethnic world that we all get to navigate every day. Preparing students for the world they need to interact with today is critical — without intentionally going outside your bubble, you are less equipped. Study abroad is one great way to do this.

Within my MESP community, there were people from a Nazarene tradition, Baptist, conservative evangelical, liberal evangelical, mainline denominations. We were questioning and pushing each other on what we believed, and then we were interacting with our Jewish, Muslim, and Orthodox Palestinian Christian counterparts, and they are pushing us to think about all the things we believed. That’s critical for having a strong faith in a multicultural world.

How do you think MESP can help prepare today’s college students for specific careers?

Dooley: MESP has been utterly transformational for most students, whether or not they continue working in the Middle East, international relations, missions, or other “traditional” MESP paths. We had a pre-med student on my semester. We had a math major. We had some in international relations, communications, and religion. Of course, not everybody has taken my path to go back to the region. I work in international development, I travel regularly and work with different cultures, but I know my friends who are now math teachers and doctors from my program would still say that MESP was transformational in how they interact with others and how they treat different cultures, different religions.

Whether you go back to the region, whether you want to work internationally, or whether you’re going to stay home, I think the cross-cultural learning and the ability to make friends and connections with people different from you serves students of all backgrounds and fields.

What advice would you give students who are interested in MESP? How might they prepare for a semester in the Middle East?

Vincent: Hold things loosely. Hold your ideas, your thoughts, opinions, everything loosely, especially plans. It can be intimidating to walk into a place that is completely foreign, that is going to challenge you in a lot of different ways, but it’s so good. I think the best things in life are going to be intimidating to begin with. At the beginning of the program especially, it’s easy to look at what’s planned for the semester and wonder how we’ll do all the reading, lectures, and processing.

It can look like a daunting semester, especially when you consider you’re in another culture, far from friends and family in America. Trust that this is worth it, that there is support in place, that you can always phone home. It’s such a good program. It will be hard, but it will be so good.

Dooley: Seriously consider a non-traditional opportunity like a MESP in Amman. You are going to learn so much more outside the classroom than you do in, and you are going to enter into a culture, a faith tradition, and a history that’s rich and complex that is not well-captured on the written page. You’ll be in a relational community, a small cohort with a director and co-director who are invested in students academic, spiritual, and emotional wellbeing. You get to travel around the region with this cohort that becomes a family, and you get to take those insights back to your own classroom discussions.

It completely changed the trajectory of my career. I was going to go into security studies when I came to MESP, but after working in the West Bank and seeing the level of poverty, limited economic opportunities, and political restrictions, I came back and switched to a concentration in development, which has led me on my career path these past 10 years. So you may get out of MESP something different than you thought when you were going in, but it will be rich and beautiful, and it will challenge you intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

Vincent: MESP is different because you are entering a region that is not well-represented and understood. I mean, a lot of our understanding of the Middle East is just characterized by violence, camels, and desert. So why wouldn’t you want to dig deeper? It teaches you how to ask the right questions about yourself, your beliefs, the people around you, the world around you in a way that I think that you would miss otherwise.

Dooley: Plus, MESP has this rich alumni network 30 years deep now. I’ve been fortunate to attend alumni gatherings in D.C. to hear where some of the first or second cohort have ended up. MESP hosts alumni nights during the semester with alumni who have ended up in Amman and on travel. They get together in Morocco, Turkey, or Egypt, or anywhere that they’ve got alumni while they’re traveling.

Vincent: One of my favorite things right now is going to these alumni nights and getting to talk with the students who are currently in the program. I also wanted to mention the service projects, where once a week, you’re given a placement. My placement was actually here in Zarqa, an hour outside of Amman. This familiarity is part of why I was willing to come to this school. My placement was not actually at this particular school. It was at a different center in the same city. So when my company asked me about starting a partnership with this particular school in Zarqa, I said, “I know Zarqa. Sign me up.” Service projects can look different whether it’s teaching English, which mine was. Some are more tech-oriented or business-oriented, but it’s another way that you can engage with the community with an interest you already have.

Dooley: And for anybody who’s interested in peace and conflict studies or security, MESP is a huge hands-on experiential learning opportunity in a complicated region, which is pretty unique for an undergraduate college experience.