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Changing Perspectives: One Student's Travels Through the Middle East

September 11th continues to carry with it many emotions: sadness, patriotism, mistrust, and fear. Part of global competence is being able to understand and recognize other perspectives—and perhaps no other event highlighted this more. If Americans want to create a more peaceful world, we need to take time to learn about, interact with, and truly understand Muslim people and culture. One student, Rachel Black, a 2009 graduate of Rutland High School in Vermont and a 2013 graduate of American University, chose to study abroad in North Africa and the Middle East so she could do just that—and in doing so changed her view of the world.

By guest blogger Rachel Black

Rachel.jpegIn the fall of 2011, I studied abroad in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). I chose the UAE when I realized that the Arab World was a whole region that I knew nothing about besides what I was taught by the media and the few books that I had read. In 2001, I was 10, so I had pretty much grown up under this culture of fear, mistrust, and hatred for the Middle East. I was influenced to believe that Arabs hated me and my culture. But, I wanted to find out more. So, I put in my application for the UAE, and to this day, I believe it was one of the best choices that I have ever made.

New Understanding
Throughout the semester, I was continually bombarded with excited, friendly questions, and eager friendship. Everyone was so happy to meet American exchange students who wanted to come to their country. They were so delighted to learn that we did not think they were all terrorists and that we were open to hear them talk about Islam and how it had been misrepresented by the events of 9/11, extremist groups, and the media. They could not believe that we were interested and open-minded because they thought everyone in the U.S. hated them. I remember leaving that semester with such a great appreciation for first-hand cultural experiences because I saw so much similarity in what both sides assumed. We assumed hatred by the others, we trusted what the media told us about each other (I saw some pretty interesting "American actor" portrayals), and I knew that if everyone could have similar experiences, there would be more cultural understanding, appreciation, and hopefully, peace.

In the summer of 2012, I was a participant in the State Department's Critical Language Scholarship Program in Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia where I took intensive formal Arabic and Tunisian dialect classes. This was probably one of the most mentally exhausting experiences of my life but also one of the most rewarding. The most important thing I took away from this summer was how much a second language gives you beyond mere communication abilities. Knowing another language allows you access to people, and through them, entrée to situations and cultural insights that you would not have had as an outsider. I credited my new language skills to the wonderful bond I created with my host mother and to traveling independently from the program to see and experience places that I would have missed otherwise, not to mention the lifelong friendships that I built with the locals. All of these experiences allowed for a deeper cultural understanding and appreciation for Tunisia and its people.

So whenever you travel, even if for only a few days, try to learn a few words and use them as much as possible. People will be extremely grateful, and it humbles you immensely.

Words of Advice
Traveling abroad has provided me with some of my greatest memories, most enjoyable adventures, and craziest stories. I think any chance to leave the country is an opportunity to learn, create relationships, and to be a representative of the U.S. I can't tell you how many times I have traveled abroad and groaned when hearing a loud American voice complaining about something or telling others, "This would never happen in the U.S." Please, if you hear yourself starting to say that, remember that you are not in the U.S. Instead, be the person who listens to what others have to say in order to learn with an open mind, who learns the language (even if just a few words) in order to connect to the people, and who accepts the idea that the U.S. isn't the best at everything. But first and foremost, travel, travel, travel!

Rachel currently lives in Los Angeles, teaching garden education as a FoodCorps Service Member.

Connect with Heather on Twitter.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Rutland High School global studies blog.

If you want to encourage students to study abroad to expand their worldview, check out IIE's Generation Study Abroad for resources. 

Image courtesy of the author.

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