October 9, 2012

And this is why I studied abroad

I feel as though I should start by saying that yesterday was a Monday. A typical Monday, in fact, complete with the most boring lecture through which I have ever struggled to listen. A Monday to start a week with a 10-page paper, an Arabic exam, and a presentation on Friday, and a Monday after a long weekend of traveling and with a lengthy village-stay at the end of the week. And it was also by far the best Monday I probably will ever have.

But that is not because things have suddenly, miraculously become easy here. Rather, it’s been the opposite, I think–many of us have fallen into a second slump. It’s a slump of exhaustion and weariness. Weariness of street harassment and new food, of being constantly surrounded by either our host families or by the other students on the program, of a new teaching/learning style, of struggling with a very difficult language, and of being away from home. I know I at least have found myself missing my family so very, very much, and I feel very distanced from my friends, who are sprinkled around the world and experiencing great changes themselves.

The weariness seemed to reach its peak this past weekend. Because our visas only last for 90 days, our program organized a trip to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco.


That meant that we traveled all weekend to cross a border, trek around and have lunch in Spain, and then recross the border with renewed visas.

For some members of our program, Ceuta was refreshing and relieving. Everything to which we had become accustomed–the lack of trashcans, the traffic, the street harassment, the smell of cooking snails–was abruptly gone. It was familiar, or at least more so than Morocco. But I didn’t like Ceuta. Honestly, I found it disconcerting, and kind of weird.

Creepy “park” in Ceuta

It was incredibly empty, and reminded me of some strange Spanish Pleasantville plopped down in the middle of Morocco. Or like Disneyland had carved out a slice of Morocco and set up a “Spanish” stage with only half the actors.

But what was worse was my perhaps irrationally visceral reaction to how some members of my program were responding to Ceuta. They spoke about the cleanliness and the emptiness as though Ceuta were such a breath of fresh air after the stench of Rabat. Or like stepping over the invisible line of the border to the West had suddenly brought us salvation in the midst of chaos.

After talking to my friends about their words and my reaction to them, I was concerned by their apparent eagerness to be out of Morocco (especially for some place so odd and empty). In the end, we realized that no one truly felt that way, but clearly these comments came from somewhere, and we spent a lot of time talking about their source. I think for many of us, we had always been the students at home who had been eager to challenge stereotypes and embrace other cultures and explore new ideas. But that is easy in the comfort of your own culture, surrounded by others who been raised in the same Western tradition of thought. Now that we are here, confronted by a very different way of thinking and perceiving and being, our own stereotypes and biases have reared up and confronted us. And our own reactions to these biases can be really frightening if we don’t respond in the way we have always expected or assumed we would.


Talking to my friends about these issues, I found myself desperately trying to persuade them to recognize the positives and triumphs of their experiences so far and to be proud of what they have accomplished so far. With two college professors as parents, I was raised on study abroad programs, and the thought that my friends might not see the benefits of their study abroad experience was really distressing to me. I heard myself saying the words I had learned from my parents, and from study abroad offices and websites, and that I myself have said a thousand times when trying to persuade others to consider study abroad–that study abroad is about learning about yourself and your home culture even more than about your host culture, and that you should embrace the challenges, because that is how you will learn and change. And in order to get through these challenging programs with any sort of grace, you need to learn how to recognize and celebrate the little things, to be proud of each experience, to push yourself to laugh when you don’t want to, to let yourself cry when you need it, to really take the time to reflect with others about what you’re feeling and what those around you are feeling.

What I know of Morocco

And here I had to pause–because those were always words I had said, but that I have always felt a little phony for saying. Let me try to explain it a little better. I have spent so many years before Lafayette watching other college students on my parents’ study abroad programs, and I have seen how transformative those experiences have been for those students. I learned at a pretty young age that the most powerful experiences for one student can seem like something insignificant to another–and so it is most important, then, to recognize what those moments mean to you and to those around you. But even though I have experienced the same programs as those students since I was 12, I had always been in the comfort of my own family. And I’ve come to realize that I have always been afraid that when I went on my own study abroad I would not be as strong or as capable or as openminded as those students or my parents before me.

But here I was, in a cafe in Morocco, and all those cliches were coming out of my mouth–but I’m not sure I have wanted anything so badly on this trip than for them to understand and believe what I was saying. I wasn’t just regurgitating my parents’ sentiments and words. For the first time in 16 years of study abroad programs, I actually 100% believed everything I was saying. All those seemingly cliche ideas we’ve always been told about study abroad–I’d actually been living them. They are no longer suggestions to me. They are fact.

So much excitement

Take my sickness on the last excursion, for example. Even though I felt so very terrible, I had to learn to rely on my friends, and to both listen to my body and to test how far I could push myself, and to find humor in the fact that we’ve all become ridiculously comfortable sharing awkward information about our bodies. The short version is that I got sick, and then I got better. The long version is that I was challenged, I adapted, and I am different now because of it.

And because I have told myself to think about my experiences this way, I believe in counting the small triumphs, those that we don’t notice right away but that pressure us slowly into change. I think those can be the changes that are strongest, and that root themselves more deeply in us than the sudden, abrupt changes that come from one big event that challenges us in an obvious way. I’m thinking about a moment a few weeks ago, when a cockroach fell from the wall to land next to my hand during breakfast. My instant reaction was to swipe it off the table, and then I remember looking down at it beside my foot, and almost saying “Sabah al-khayr (good morning)” to it, with a humor that so surprised me that it shocked me into silence. Having never encountered a cockroach before, I will admit I was actually really worried before the trip about how I would react to them. My lack of reaction might seem like something silly or pointless to you, but to me it was a huge deal, because I had reacted in a way that both surprised me and made me proud of myself.

I am so thrilled to find myself reacting this way. What has always been a goal of mine (and one I had always been afraid I could not reach) has abruptly, quite without my awareness, become my reality. I even turned to my friends and said, “I feel like I’ve graduated”–because I suddenly felt like I’d finally become the traveler I’ve always wanted to be. The realization overwhelmed me. I started smiling, and then suddenly I was laughing. I’m not sure I can even describe the sense of euphoria I felt, except that it felt like bubbles of air rising through me.

Of course, I don’t mean to say that I won’t have downs again, or that I will not sometime soon doubt what I have written here. But I can honestly say that I would not want to spend the next two months without struggle,and that I am so excited for the next challenges, because I’m so gosh darned excited to see how they change me.

posted in Madeline Gambino

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  1. very impressive! love this experience and love Lafayette!!O(∩_∩)O

    says Matthew
    October 12, 2012 at 10:33 am
  2. Great post! I felt I was right there with you on your typical Monday. Can’t wait to read more.

    says Sue
    October 17, 2012 at 1:48 pm
  3. Your writing took me all the way back to my first year (of three) living in Tiberias, Israel. I felt like I was reexperiencing that very special time in my own youth and am delighted that you are one of Jordan’s classmates there in Morocco – loving and learning so very much!

    says Kitty Kelly
    November 12, 2012 at 8:03 pm

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