A dozen countries, six months, 8,000 photos, countless memories. Mercer junior David Stokes spent the summer and fall 2018 semesters studying abroad and exploring locations halfway across the world.
“I had an interest in the Middle East and Arab world, and so I really wanted to experience some of the things that we’d been studying in classes and actually talk with people who live in those countries and get their perspective on their history and the politics,” Stokes said.
Stokes, an international affairs and religion major and French minor, got his first tastes of international travel during Mercer-sponsored trips. He went to Dubai for spring break during his freshman year and to Georgia for a Mercer On Mission trip the following summer. In addition, he was able to go to Saudi Arabia with the Model Arab League for spring break 2018.
His most recent trip was a solo excursion that he undertook at the encouragement of his adviser, Dr. Eimad Houry, professor and chair of Mercer’s Department of International and Global Studies. Stokes had been studying the Arabic language on his own for about a year and a half, and Dr. Houry suggested he apply for the summer Arabic language program at American University of Beirut (AUB) in Lebanon.
“David is honest to his academic pursuits,” Dr. Houry said. “He is admired among his peers for being serious about and committed to his goals. He is adventurous, willing to give the people and communities around him the benefit of the doubt, a worldview that has allowed and encouraged him to travel freely on his own.”
Stokes was the first Mercer student to be admitted to the seven-week course at AUB. He said he wasn’t able to receive transferable course credit for his summer studies, but his participation could open the door for a future partnership between Mercer and AUB.
He spent a day in Qatar before he arrived at AUB. When he wasn’t in class, he was able to explore a lot of the city and country through group trips with the university and solo trips. Through total immersion in the standard Arabic language, he was able to communicate pretty fluently by the end of the course.
“Although he is not the first Mercer student to pursue Arabic, he has certainly reached a higher level of competency in the language faster than any other student I have met in my almost three-decades-long career in higher education,” Dr. Houry said.
The summer program ended Aug. 8, and Stokes had already arranged to study abroad at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco for the fall semester, which started Aug. 29. That left him with about 20 free days, which he used to explore some nearby countries on his own.
He traveled to Kuwait; Amman and Petra in Jordan; Israel and Palestine, including the cities of Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Tel Aviv; and Istanbul, Turkey, before arriving in Ifrane, Morocco, for the fall semester.
Stokes visited a different location during all but one weekend of his fall semester, including the Moroccan cities of Casablanca, Tangier and Fes; the South of Spain; and Marsais, France. He went to Mauritania in Northwest Africa during his week off for a Moroccan national holiday, an excursion he considers one of his most memorable experiences while abroad.
His classes in Morocco ended Dec. 23, so he did more traveling over the holidays. He spent Christmas in Italy and attended mass at the Vatican, where he saw Pope Francis speak. As a Catholic, it was a “really powerful moment” for him. He capped off his world travels with stops in Tunisia and Egypt, before heading back to the United States.
Stokes never dreamed he would visit so many countries and experience all that he has. He hopes his time abroad will inspire other students to want to travel to the Middle East in the future, and he’d like to see more Mercer-sponsored trips to the area.
“The Middle East is widely assumed to be a dangerous place among students, and less than 1 percent of American undergraduates studying abroad end up visiting any of the countries in the region,” Dr. Houry said. “David has now visited seven; that’s more countries than I have visited, and I am originally from this region.”
Being immersed in the culture changed Stokes’ perspective and helped him discover the true cultural identity of the places he visited. The whole Middle East has a reputation, but it shouldn’t be defined by the wars happening in just a few of the 22 Arab countries, Stokes said.
“I thought that I understood the Middle East broadly before I went there, but when I got there I realized that I understood nothing. These textbooks and news articles were helpful, but they weren’t the full story,” Stokes said. “Reading about these things in a book isn’t the same as talking to people and getting their perspective. They’re the ones who are living what’s happening.”
Stokes hopes to share the stories of the people he met during his travels with the Mercer and local community.