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Students Learn Political Science On the Ground

On December 17, 2010, street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest his treatment by authorities. His suicide inspired citizen demonstrations that first engulfed his home country of Tunisia and then erupted across the region.A citizen demonstration in Tunisia.

Thus began a time of rapid and unexpected change examined by Professor Sean Burns (Government) in his senior seminar, “The Arab Spring and Its Consequences.” Five students in the course participated in the optional Study Away component – a Spring Break research visit to Tunisia funded in part by the Arts & Sciences Annual Fund, with additional resources provided by the Government Department.

“My goal in organizing the trip was to give students a taste of what it’s like on the ground doing research in political science and to experience first hand what they were reading about in class,” said Burns.

Using local contacts, the group was able to meet face to face with members of Tunisian political and civil society, including activists, academics, and leaders of major groups like the national labor union Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail and the Islamist political party Ennahda.

Each student came prepared with research questions. Sometimes what they learned shifted their interest or focus. Sanam Analouei '19 described the meetings as “indispensable and critical in providing us with a more holistic and deeper understanding of the factors leading up to the revolution, as well as its consequences.”

“While the revolution gave people more political freedom, the destabilized economy makes it hard to predict how long it will take for the revolution to actually improve people’s living standards,” said Emma Groene '20.

At the English-speaking Mediterranean School of Business, faculty and students spoke candidly about aspects of the city’s modern culture, addressing questions about what it is like to be a young woman or an LGBT student in Tunis. “Speaking with them gave me a perspective on day-to-day life for people my age in Tunisia and, thanks to Facebook, a few new friends as well,” said Julia Stumbaugh '19.

Professor Burns and students at the Roman ruins at Dougga, with their guide and translator Tarek.Students also immersed themselves in the local culture and history, spending time in the Medina and the cafes of Avenue Bourguiba, and visiting historic sites like Carthage and the Roman ruins at Dougga.

“Tunisia is a place most of us would never think of visiting,” said Burns. “Yet it’s the birthplace of the Arab Spring, and the one Arab Spring country that has successfully transitioned to democracy. The next chapter of its story is being written by the very people we were able to meet.”