Art by Gabby DiGiovanni
Pepperdine’s International Programs (IP) continually monitors military activity in the Middle East, where they offer three opportunities for Seaver College students to study abroad: the Jordan summer program, an educational field trip (EFT) to Jordan through the London program and an EFT to the United Arab Emirates through the Florence program.
Recently, IP monitored the U.S. killing of Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, Iraq, and subsequent retaliation.
“Pepperdine has been and will continue to watch events with Iran as well as other events taking place in the Middle East region to safeguard our community,” IP Director Greg Muger wrote in an email.
The Jordan program in Amman is over 500 miles from Baghdad, but it is still closer to military activity than other international programs. Senior Blake Mastalerz, who has studied abroad in Jordan, Switzerland, Fiji and Kenya said Jordan did not feel more dangerous than anywhere else.
“I would advocate and say that LA is a lot more dangerous place than Jordan,” Mastalerz said.
In all academic-year programs, students study at Pepperdine-owned facilities. For faculty-led summer programs, Pepperdine partners with third parties such as the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, which runs the Middle East Studies Program (MESP) in Amman, Jordan.
Pepperdine follows the same process for all of their summer study abroad programs and EFTs. Representatives from the university administration, Department of Public Safety and the Office of Insurance and Risk make up the Travel Risk Assessment Team, according to IP’s International Travel Risk Assessment Process Explanation.
The document claims that the team gathers information from a wide range of sources, including in-country security analysts, a global security firm, the U.S. Department of State, media sources, travel agents and tour operators.
“I trust their decisions,” Mastalerz said. “I know that if Pepperdine makes a call like, ‘It’s OK to go here, but it’s not okay to go there,’ I feel safe with their decision.”
The Travel Risk Assessment Team also looks for safe modes of transportation, lodging, activities, site visits and communication procedures.
According to IP’s health and safety webpage, the university offers abroad students free self-defense classes, recommends their enrollment in the U.S. Department of State Safe Traveler Enrollment Program and provides safety briefings and guidelines. They also prevent students on break from traveling to countries or regions with high-threat alerts.
Hope Dease, a sophomore currently abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, studied in Jordan in the summer of 2019.
“We were definitely more briefed going to Jordan [than Buenos Aires],” Dease said. “We were given so many more resources.”
A main resource Jordan students receive is the Basic Information Guide, or BIG. The BIG outlines topics from money to meals, but one of its largest sections is the MESP rules.
“It’s a bunch of rules that are, like, saying, ‘Hey, you need to follow these things,’” Mastalerz said. “First, out of safety for yourself. And then second, out of respect for the culture and the community you’re going into.”
The rules include bans on alcohol, dating, cross-gender public displays of affection, evangelism, driving vehicles, men and women being alone together and family or friends visiting. There are also rules requiring a buddy system after dark, instituting an 11 p.m. curfew and restricting travel outside of Amman.
Dease said she and her parents had reservations about the MESP beforehand.
“In the United States, we aren’t very used to the idea of going off to the Middle East,” Dease said. “Because of the media, we have this idea of what the Middle East is, that it isn’t.”
Mastalerz agreed that Jordan defied usual American expectations of Middle Eastern danger.
“You could walk around the city and you could see every now and then a couple of military officers holding guns around government buildings,” Mastalerz said. “But they’re people who, I’d walk by them, and they’d be like, ‘Hey! Welcome to Jordan!’”
Mastalerz and Dease both said they always felt safe in Jordan, but Dease became more comfortable the longer she was there.
“I think I felt the safest at the end of my Jordan experience because I had made relationships with the Jordanians,” Dease said. “I had experienced their culture firsthand, and I knew that just because it’s different … doesn’t mean it’s unsafe.”
Dease said she went to Jordan to see what it is like living in the Middle East.
“You never really know someone’s story, but when you hear it from them firsthand, it helps you have a better idea of everything,” Dease said.
Both Mastalerz and Dease said they would go back to Jordan and recommend other students participate in the MESP.
“I’d feel safe going back by myself,” Mastalerz said. “I got some friends there I could direct message.”