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All of a Sudden, a Different Vibe

It was the beginning of 2011, and Sofia Carlsson was on a plane back to the United States after spending a week in Aleppo, Syria, and Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt.

Just three days later, the Arab Spring would begin.

“Nobody thought that this would happen. All of a sudden, there was a different vibe,” said Carlsson, who at the time worked as project coordinator at Near Eastern Studies in LSA.

Carlsson had been working in Syria and Egypt as part of a site visit for the University of Michigan Arabic Language Flagship Program, which she had helped create. The program offered students the opportunity to reach professional proficiency in Arabic, receive tuition support and journey abroad.

A Rush to Evacuate Students

“I was traveling with my colleague Lisa Michelin, hoping to ensure safety for the students that were living there at the time. When we learned of the potential danger our students were in, we had to evacuate them immediately. Many were reluctant to leave, saying ‘We don’t need to go anywhere. Everything is fine,'” she said.

But when thousands of protesters gathered in Tahrir Square, Cairo, to demand the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the students were evacuated.

“It was strange because from my perspective as a tourist, I couldn’t initially tell that such turmoil was brewing,” said Carlsson, who now works as an academic adviser at the International Institute, LSA. “I really enjoyed seeing the ancient culture of Egypt and the beautiful town of Aleppo, which felt so human.”

Although it was a frightening time for Carlsson and those studying abroad, the U-M students and mentors returned home safely. The university responded to the situation by creating safety processes for its students and faculty who study or research abroad.

Learning to Appreciate Different Cultures

“I have learned, and am still learning, to be sensitive to cultures and backgrounds, especially during times like these,” she said.

Carlsson has had the chance to explore various cultures — such as Ireland, Israel and Romania — through her personal travels and work at U-M. She grew up in Sweden, where she earned a master’s degree in American literature and philosophy at Uppsala University in 2007.

Last year, she attended a wedding in South Africa and had the chance to experience African culture first-hand.

“We stayed on a natural reserve, where we saw zebras grazing out the window. We were there for just a week, but time stretched on. I saw friendships being built between different cultures and had the chance to connect with so many unique individuals,” she said.

Helping Students Experience the World

Carlsson’s experiences helps her connect with students interested in languages and cultures all over the world. In her current role as an academic adviser at U-M she serves undergraduate students majoring or minoring in international or regional studies. She says she feels lucky to help students fulfill their dreams of experiencing the world while studying at U-M.

“Our majors and minors are created in such a way that study or research abroad can easily be incorporated. We also provide funding,” she said. This academic year Program in International and Comparative Studies, the International Institute’s largest major, sent 40 students to study or research abroad.

“I always knew I wanted to experience the world, but didn’t know how to make that into a career. Through my position at U-M, I have chance to work with students who are interested in traveling, and figure out how to put cultural experiences into their schedule.

“I didn’t have someone to direct me, encourage me, and keep me safe as a young traveler. … Now I get to be that person for others.”

By Meg Bauer. Reprinted with permission of The University Record.