About to take his BA in Poli Sci, Matthew Gottfried looks back on his EAP year abroad in Cairo
Being able to hear the language spoken every day and interact with it proved to be one of the biggest benefits of studying in the Middle East.
Nearly 3,000 UCLA undergraduates have taken one or more courses on the Middle East, and Matthew Gottfried has taken many more than one. The Poli Sci major also spent his junior year at the American University in Cairo in the UC Education Abroad Program. Jonathan Friedlander, Assistant Director of the Center for Near Eastern Studies, talked with him about his experience in Egypt.
Jonathan Friedlander: Can you tell us a little about your background?
Matthew Gottfried: I grew up in Ontario, California with my father Phillip, mother Stephanie and older brother Glenn. I was raised in a very diverse religious and cultural background. My dad’s family is of Eastern European Jewish decent. My mom, on the other hand, is an Italian Catholic. I was raised Catholic by my mother, but I was also exposed to my father’s Jewish culture. Growing up in such a unique setting was advantageous because it demonstrated to me the importance of understanding multiple perspectives and the need for a diverse comprehension. I went to the local public elementary school and junior high, which were Hawthorne and Vina Danks respectively. After completing junior high, I went to Damien High School in La Verne and graduated in 2001.
JF: What prompted you to choose your undergraduate major in Political Science and specialize in Middle East studies?
MG: I was always interested in politics while I was growing up. When I applied to UCLA, I knew that I wanted to do something with Political Science, but I didn’t have a clear direction at that point. I became interested in the Middle East for several reasons. The major reason why I chose to study the Middle East was in order to gain perspective and knowledge about one of the most complex and heavily disputed regions in the world. The political conflict within the region has always struck me with awe and it was clear that I lacked a multicultural outlook and understanding. Thus I sought to remedy this. A second factor involved my religious curiosity, not only within my faith and belief structure, but outside it as well. As a Christian who was also familiar with Jewish tradition, the importance of the Middle East was obvious. However, I did not understand Islam, having never been exposed to it while growing up. Once again, lack of knowledge and curiosity motivated me. The third significant factor was undeniably the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. It was clear to me that the majority of Americans (myself included) knew very little about the Middle East and that such ignorance can have catastrophic ramifications.
JF: What was the focus of your studies at UCLA?
MG: I majored in Political Science with a concentration on international relations and minored in Arabic/Islamic Studies. I focused on Middle East related courses, mostly in the Political Science and History departments.
JF: What prompted you to spend your junior year in Egypt on the UC Education Abroad Program?
MG: I chose to study abroad because I wanted to truly understand the region I was studying. There is a clear difference between reading about something in a textbook and being physically immersed in the location, the culture and the way of life, especially if one has never been exposed to the region and the culture. Thus, there is no better way to do this than studying abroad. I found it to be necessary to study in the Middle East, based on my academic concentration and interest. How else can someone comprehend the nature of what they are studying?
JF: In retrospect, how would you describe your EAP experience in Egypt?
MG: My experience in Egypt was amazing. The opportunity to be immersed in a foreign culture for a year cannot be rivaled, and I do not mean this only in the academic sense. I was able to learn inside and outside of the classroom while also learning a lot about myself in the process. I also want to emphasize how helpful EAP was while I was in Egypt. EAP is one of the only (if not the only) program that has a counselor present in Cairo specifically to help students, especially in the transition to living in Cairo, choosing classes and organizing field trips. We are lucky to have such incredible human resources available to us.
JF: What was your daily routine as a student at the American University in Cairo?
MG: I usually woke up about an hour and a half before class in order to get ready and make the shuttle that takes you from the AUC dormitory to the university. After the 30-minute shuttle ride, I would go to my lectures which included Political Science, History and Arabic courses. I usually ate lunch on campus, but occasionally I would walk off campus to eat something downtown. Once I was done with classes, I would take the shuttle or a taxi back to the dorms. In the early evenings I would go out to dinner at one of the local cafés and have some down time with friends. Homework and reading would occupy the rest of my night.
JF: Did you accomplish your goal in language training?
MG: Although Cairo lived up to my expectations of cultural immersion and enhancing my regional knowledge, I didn't have the chance to concentrate on Arabic because I had to fulfill the Political Science obligations within my major. Consequently, I didn’t accomplish everything that I wanted to in terms of the language. Nevertheless, being able to hear the language spoken every day and interact with it proved to be one of the biggest benefits of studying in the Middle East. The opportunity to really solidify your language skills is present.
JF: Were you prepared to meet your academic and personal objectives?
MG: I would say that I was mentally prepared to meet my objectives. One of the most important things to do before leaving for Cairo (or any foreign destination, for that matter) is to have an open mind. Studying abroad is important because it allows you to let go of your preconceived notions and provides you the opportunity to gain perspective and understanding. You shouldn’t leave with a rigid agenda of what you want to see and achieve. Naturally you should still have goals and aspirations prior to yor departure, but the unexpected is what makes this experience life changing.
JF: What was the most memorable part of your stay in Egypt? Did you travel beyond Cairo?
MG: It's difficult to say that one particular moment or event was the most memorable part of my stay in Egypt. The entire experience was extremely memorable. Whether it was seeing the sunrise on top of Mt. Musa in Sinai, field trips to Islamic Cairo and the ancient pyramids, or intellectual conversations and debates with AUC students (both natives and other study abroads) at a local café, each exhibited an assorted memorable quality. I did travel a lot inside and outside of Cairo and Egypt. Within Egypt, I visited the Western Desert of Bahariyya, Luxor, Sharm al-Sheikh, Taba and Nuweiba’. Outside of Egypt, I traveled to Jordan where I saw Amman, Petra, Mt. Nebo and the Dead Sea, and after the conclusion of EAP and the fulfillment of the program’s obligations, I visited Israel (Eilat, the Dead Sea and Jerusalem), and the West Bank of Palestine (Bethlehem and Ramallah). I also had the opportunity to see Greece and Italy during my school breaks.
JF: What are your career ambitions and how do you plan to use the knowledge you gained toward that end? Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years from now?
MG: There are several short-term and long-term goals that I plan to realize. The first is to further advance my Arabic proficiency in reading, writing, listening and speaking. My second goal is to continue my academic learning and obtain a doctorate in international relations of the Middle East, which will certainly involve extensive travel in the Middle East. After realizing these goals, I plan on using them to establish a career, first working for the federal government on security issues so I can ideally help formulate effective US policy and then becoming a university professor in order to spread the knowledge that I have gained over the years.
JF: Would you advise your peers to venture on EAP? Would you advise them to pursue Middle East studies at UCLA?
MG: I would strongly advise anyone who has the opportunity to study abroad in the Middle East through EAP to do so. Likewise, I would encourage anyone who has interest in the Middle East to pursue the field academically. The Middle East is a peculiar region in the sense that, although most people do not have a general understanding of it, many will assert their beliefs and claim to be a specialist, whether it is due to religious, ethnic or cultural ties. This is not to say that all of these individuals do not have a fair perspective, but it is rather a challenge for people who care for the region to invest their time in order to obtain a well-rounded educational understanding. There are too many inaccuracies, fallacies and blatant misunderstandings vis-à-vis the Middle East and I truly believe that our generation can make a successful effort to prevent distorted perceptions.