Coming to Terms With the “Study Abroad Blog”
I didn’t want to do a blog while I was studying abroad in Amman, Jordan because I felt that the whole concept was over done. I didn’t want to feel like my stories or experiences were cliche.
Since coming back to the United States, however, I am having a really difficult time synthesizing the entire experience. It has gotten to the point where I feel like the whole trip was a dream and never actually happened. This makes me sad because I genuinely feel that the experience changed me and made me a more productive and focused person. A friend of mine in my program posted an exceptionally poignant quote by Azar Nafisi to our Facebook group towards the end of our stay: “You get a strange feeling when you are about to leave a place. Like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.” It is uncanny how true this sentiment is now, especially being home and back at my university in the states.
I feel that coming to terms with the entire experience does require telling people about it in detail. However, it is near impossible to respond to the question: “How was Jordan?” How can I give the experience justice in a casual conversation? My typical response is, “it was perspective shifting.” While heavier than a typical response about how beautiful Paris was, or how delicious italian food in Italy was, I still feel that it doesn’t fully encapsulate my time abroad.
The most unique thing about Jordan, that also happens to be the most unique aspect about my time there, is the huge population of refugees. Palestinians, Syrians, and Iraqis all temporarily call Jordan home. Interactions with these individuals are what most dramatically contributed to my now infamous perspective shift.
These refugees were all displaced by conflicts with very different characteristics. Those refugees that impacted me the most were the Palestinians. Previous to going to Jordan I had thought that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was too complex for me to grasp. I thought it had to do with religious claims to the land that I would never understand and never care about, so I didn’t bother looking into it more. Being in Jordan made news about the conflict much more accessible and much less biased than what I had previously been exposed to in the US. Being surrounded by people affected by the violence and hearing first-hand accounts I quickly developed an intense curiosity to know more about it. I quenched this curiosity by reading King Abdullah II’s book: “Our Last Best Chance: the Pursuit for Peace in a Time of Peril.” He provides an extremely accurate account of the origins of the conflict and all of the peace making efforts since. I suddenly began to realize that the conflict was not so complicated at all. I suddenly began to care. I suddenly became passionate in my belief that peace needs to happen and it needs to happen now.
Having my perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian changed also brings up the overall level of cross-cultural understanding I attained while living in a Muslim country. This is what drew me to Jordan in the first place. The anti-Islam bias in many aspects of American society, from the media to day-to-day interactions really made me more curious about this culture. I could not believe that a religion, an institution preaching peace and love for all human beings, could be the cause of so much evil. It was no suprise to find that the people of Jordan were extremely hospitable and warm. While it is undeniable that being an independent woman was more of a challenge, overall I got the feeling that the vast majority of the people I interacted with were happy to show me the great parts about arabic culture: hospitality, family, and food. Shortly after my return to America, the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo occurred, and then the subsequent backlash. It made me sick that so many people blamed Islam as a religion, and it made me even more sick that people blamed middle eastern culture at large. It is sadly and overwhelmingly true that the few have ruined the many when it comes to middle eastern culture.
One regional conflict I did not start to understand, and in fact became more confused about, is the Syrian civil war. So much destruction and so much tragedy has occurred within my lifetime, hell, within my college career, that I can’t even begin to understand. The stress and difficult conditions that the people of Syria are experiencing is unfathomable. I spoke with the academic director of my program a lot about all the conflicts in the region, and I just can’t get out of my head her telling me and my classmates how beautiful the city of Damascus used to be. Furthermore, with all of this tragedy already happening in Syria, the further involvement of Da’ash in the country just multiplies the horror and destruction.
I really could go deeper into everything I’ve learned about the conflicts happening in the region and the effects they have had on the people who live there, however, much of this information can be found online and in text books. What can’t be found through academic channels is the resilience demonstrated by these struggling peoples. Overall, there is an undying sense of hope that life will get better. Furthermore, there is an amazing aura of positivity coming from those there to help. Whether an UN agency, an NGO, or the Jordanian government, there is no hesitation to work to find resolutions to challenges within the existing constraints. While, it is very likely that this was simply the message being sent by officials from these organizations coming to present to me and my classmates, one could definitively get the sense that bettering even one refugee’s life was what drove these people to work on this issue.
Being back at my home university I am finding that being exposed to all of these things has helped me put my studies in biology and public health into context. I can see how what I am learning can be applied to my work once I graduate. As a result, I am far more excited than most of my peers about classes such as Fundamentals of Epidemiology or Fundamentals of Health Policy and Management. That fact makes me profoundly miss my classmates back in Jordan. I know that if they were in these classes with me, they would want to discuss every argument the professor made after class, and write down ever interesting point s/he makes (which ends up being quite a few), and have an over whelming urge to challenge the professor with a million questions. This brings me back to Nafisi’s words. As I sit in lecture halls with over a hundred people in my class talking about how much they drank last night and/or complaining about having to take this class I feel dragged down. I feel judged for frantically taking notes with my own analysis of what the professor is saying thrown in. I feel discouraged from challenging the professor and asking questions. I feel restricted.
The phenomenon of feeling restricted in what is supposed to be a freeing environment in combination with the sentiment that Nafisi shares makes me realize that I had the greatest opportunity that one can have in higher education in Jordan: being in a classroom with like-minded students. With this realization, I want to actively try and counter Nafisi’s sentiment. I want to hold onto this enthusiasm for learning, knowing that what I learn can and will better someone else’s life.
Now that I’ve gotten over my fear of the “study abroad blog” I can see that some of my experiences do sound cliche, idealistic, and frankly a bit fraught. However, that’s the special thing about study abroad: it gets you overly excited and wanting to learn about the world. This is important to accept and bring back to my studies in the states. Because without that enthusiasm, my education will just be the internalization of facts instead of a time of enlightenment and empowerment that can ultimately help me better the lives of those around the world.