Middle East messenger

Cody Knipfer, wearing the traditional ghutra an iqal on his head, immerses in the culture of Saudi Arabia during the 10-day study visit part of his exchange fellowship.
March 12, 2014

Cody Knipfer was taken by surprise during his Saudi Arabia Exchange Fellowship study visit when he discovered the monarchy’s capital city of Riyadh was a lot like, well, Baltimore.

“I thought it would be very foreign to me – that I would have culture shock,” says the junior Political Science and International Studies major from Ellicott City, Md. “In the cities, I didn’t see any camels and tents – that’s a dying way of life.”

Instead, Knipfer found urban life to be unexpectedly normal by U.S. standards.

“They wake up to an alarm, turn on the TV, eat breakfast, hop in the car to go to work, come home, watch TV or go shopping at the mall,” he says, his voice still echoing a hint of disbelief.

Middle East messenger The prestigious fellowship, sponsored by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, offers 10 students, selected from a national pool, a 10-day study visit to Saudi Arabia and pre-trip preparation. The students were given tours and met with Saudi professors, students, government officials and the American ambassador, but they also were left to explore and discover the culture on their own.

Upon returning home, each student is expected to plan year-long activities and talks to share their new knowledge about the oil nation with the American public.

The first opportunity for Knipfer to share came at the Feb. 28-March 1 Maryland Collegiate Honors Council when the Honors student gave a presentation about Saudi Arabia. But it won’t be the last since Knipfer is looking forward to presenting in classes, blogging and exploring any and all opportunities.

Saudi Arabia, says Knipfer, has a vibrant history and is trying to define itself in the modern era. King Abdullah, who is 89, is considered a reformer and Knipfer saw firsthand his efforts to move his country gradually into more modern progressive values. Americans, he says, have a skewed portrayal of the kingdom based on the fact that it is Osama bin Laden’s homeland and oil rich.

“Change is coming,” Knipfer says. “Saudi Arabia is in conflict with itself, torn between the global culture and Islamic tradition. The younger generation has grown up with the Internet while the older generation hasn’t experienced outside influence.

“Education is free and 60 percent of college students are women – yet women are not permitted to drive and for that reason few of them pursue careers or jobs.”

The study visit to Saudi Arabia has focused Knipfer’s career plans on the foreign service.

Middle East messenger
Camel encounters were a rarity during Cody Knipfer’s 10 days in Saudi Arabia on an exchange fellowship.

“Traveling was an amazing experience for me, and I would like to work in in embassies in the Middle East,” says the versatile Knipfer, who explored his passion for spaceflight and met the astronauts who have long been his heroes during his summer internship with NASA. His impressive and extensive resume also includes Baltimore Collegetown Leadershape participant, co-president of Astronomy Club, senator in student government, and member of Model Arab League, Model United Nations and Model European Union teams.