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From Hutchinson to Cairo, Via Knox

By Megan Scott '96

Mike Boettcher knew exactly what he wanted to do when he entered Knox in fall 2001. A first-year student from Hutchinson, Minnesota, Boettcher planned to major in political science with a focus on domestic policy. But a few weeks after starting classes, two planes crashed into New York's World Trade Center.

"It was clear to most that 9/11 was about to change everything," Boettcher says. "It made me realize that I understood far too little about what caused this unforgivable act and what can be done to make sure it never happens again."

The events of 9/11 didn't change Boettcher's major -- he graduated in June 2005 with a major in political science -- but they did change his primary focus from domestic policy to Middle Eastern studies. "9/11 focused my studies on, and determination to understand, the Middle East in a way I am sure would not have developed without this event."

Knox professors and Middle East experts Robert Seibert '63, political science, and Roy Andersen, economics, teach regular courses on Middle Eastern politics and culture, including Comparative Politics of the Middle East and Islam and Social Change, but Boettcher decided he needed more formalized coursework to accomplish his goals. Working with Professor Seibert, he created an independent minor in Middle Eastern studies.

"I chose to independently minor in Middle Eastern studies because the option was open to me at Knox, and I know that formalizing my interests into a minor program with the benefit of direction from mentors like Professor Seibert and others could only help me," Boettcher says.

During his four years at Knox, Boettcher took three independent study courses on the Middle East -- Palestine Post Arafat, Islamic Fundamentalism, and Elementary Arabic. He also got to know many Knox students from the Middle East, either through his studies or through extracurricular activities like his fraternity or Student Senate.

Afaq Zraikat '06, from Amman, Jordan, taught Boettcher Elementary Arabic. TKE fraternity brother Hassan Massoud '06 attended the 2004 International Model Arab League with Boettcher in Cairo, Egypt, Massoud's home town. Massoud and his family also hosted Boettcher after the conference. And Katrin Musharqa '06, from Ramallah in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, also attended the International Model Arab League with Boettcher.

Boettcher's studies and activities culminated in summer 2005 with an intensive, seven-week Arabic training program at the American University of Beirut, followed by extended travels throughout the Middle East. "You can read 10 books about the Middle East, but there is nothing like being there," he says.

As important as the intensive language program was -- Boettcher honed his language skills studying Arabic for four to five hours per day -- it was his travels throughout the Middle East that proved to be most valuable to him. After completing the language program, Boettcher traveled to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, and Egypt.

"It was amazing," he recalls. "I learned more from my experiences and personal contacts there than I ever could have staying home."

Not surprisingly, many of Boettcher's personal contacts in the Middle East were made at Knox. Boettcher met up with Katrin Musharqa in Amman, Jordan, and his last stop in the Middle East was Cairo, where he stayed with Hassan Massoud and his family for a second time.

"The most rewarding part of the trip was talking with different people, people on the street," he says. Boettcher recalls individuals practicing English with him or offering to take him home for dinner. "Too often Americans have negative images of Middle Eastern countries, especially after 9/11, but the people I met were very welcoming and polite."

As he hoped, Boettcher's travels proved to be a rewarding experience. "My travels helped me connect things, see the bigger picture. I realized how much more complex the whole situation in the Middle East really is," he says.

More than a year after graduating from Knox, Mike Boettcher still knows exactly what he wants to do -- he hopes to put his degree in politics and the Middle East to work in national security or intelligence with the State Department or Department of Defense. And even though he hasn't recently been back to Knox, Boettcher's name is regularly mentioned around the campus. Ask a student or professor about studying or traveling in the Middle East, and nearly everyone says "you've got to talk to Mike Boettcher."

Model Arab League
Before embarking on his three-month trip to the Middle East in summer 2005, Mike Boettcher was already familiar with parts of the region. In November 2004, Boettcher and four other Knox students-Hassan Massoud '06, Katrin Musharqa '06, Musaad Al Dosari '07, and Zack Stephenson '06-attended the annual Cairo International Model Arab League (CIMAL). They were accompanied by Professor Roy Andersen.

A week-long conference held each year at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, the CIMAL brings together students from around the world in order to develop an understanding of the regional and international factors that affect Arab foreign policy. According to Andersen, the students simulate "what you would find at an international organization, involving themselves in negotiations, preparing resolutions."

The five Knox students were chosen as delegates for a particular country, and each served on individual councils, ranging from the Conference on Human Rights to the Committee on Palestinian/Israeli affairs. Boettcher, who served as Knox's head delegate, was assigned to Palestine and served on the Council of Foreign Ministers.

Each student independently prepared for the conference. Boettcher "read a lot, paying special attention to major crisis events in the region." He also researched Palestinian policy and leadership.

The CIMAL was Boettcher's first exposure to the Middle East. "It was an amazing experience," he says. "The conference brought a lot of people together in the region. I gained perspective on how they handle things diplomatically. It was very helpful."

Information on the featured photographs (top to bottom):
Photo 1: Mike Boettcher '05 in Jerusalem.
Photo 2: Afaq Zraikat '06, a double major in biochemistry and international relations, teaches Arabic during winter term 2006. More than 30 students enrolled in her Elementary and Advanced Arabic coursed, offered during the 2006/2006 academic year. Zraikat also taught Mike Boettcher Elementary Arabic during the previous year.
Photo 3: Katrin Musharqa '06 and Boettcher in Amman, Jordan.
Photo 4: The separation barrier, or "The Wall," that Israel is building between Israel and Palestine.