Of Travel Plans and TB Tests: Studying Abroad in the Fall

Here’s a fun math problem: what do you get from five rescheduled meetings, plus a dozen e-mails begging department heads to see you, multiplied by three months of impatience and malfunctioning links, plus vaccinations and a TB test?
 
Answer: one student (me), ready to study abroad in fall 2018. My program, I.E.S. Rabat, is not officially recognized by Swarthmore, so I had the dubious honor of being one of the first students to file a petition through the new Off Campus Study online application. Repeatedly, I’ve been told my petition may be used as a model for future students. If I were cynical I might think I was being used as a guinea pig. As it is, I’m just glad I can go.
 
My focus is postcolonial Maghrebi literature written in French; going to Morocco, which still has a large Francophone population, seemed more logical than continental France, which has limited resources devoted to postcolonial literature and, worst of all, my grandparents would be able to keep an eye on me. And, since three-quarter of programs in the Middle East seemed focused on either peace and conflict studies or were weirdly orientalist (my favorite is the student review which described snake charmers and camels in downtown Rabat), the one program I found that allowed me to take courses in French at a Moroccan university was not officially recognized by Swarthmore. So I petitioned.
 
Petitioning adds an extra level of stress to the study abroad application process. “Petitioning” in study abroad language means desperately trying to prove that your program of choice is worthy of Swarthmore’s rigid academic standards. It means printing syllabi for your program courses, which will inevitably be outdated; e-mailing them to department heads, begging for credit; uploading screenshots and documents at 2 a.m. to make sure your petition is ready in time. And yet, every semester, a few students decide to go through the process.
 
To be fair, not all petitions are nerve-wracking. Lilly Price ’20 petitioned to go to Thailand with the International Sustainable Development Studies; after five weeks of a homestay, during which she will learn Thai, she and about 30 other students from schools across the U.S. will backpack and trek across the country. In small villages, they will meet local community leaders, and learn about sustainable development and agricultural practices. .
 
“I’m the first student from Swat doing this program,” explains Price. “I was looking for a program with a lot of field studies, and the office [Off-Campus Study] recommended this. I actually got a lot of support, even as a petitioner, even though there were a few bumps. It can be hard to wrangle all the department heads to sign off on the courses.”
 
Price’s program, which centers on sustainable development as well as Thai society, is perfectly suited to her environmental studies and anthropology special major. Other students use study abroad as an opportunity to get as far away from their major courses as possible. Jack Rubien ’20, a biophysics major and math minor, will be going to India as part of a Buddhist studies program based in Bodh Gaya, a historic pilgrimage site where Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. He will learn Hindi, study meditation, learn about the different sects and tenets of Buddhism, and conduct a three-week independent study before returning to the U.S.
 
“I was able to pace things out so that I don’t have to take S.T.E.M. courses for a full semester, so this is my chance to do something completely different. I took a class, Patterns of Asian Religions, that got me really interested in Buddhism in Asia, so the professor [Steven Hopkins] recommended this program. I was really not proactive and did everything last minute, so O.C.S. was swamped by then and didn’t have that much time for me. You should try to schedule meetings earlier on when they can give you more attention.”
 
While all three of us are excited to be leaving soon and miss out on the beginning of Swat Plague and campus claustrophobia, we all have our share of apprehensions. I am eager to learn Arabic, both the colloquial Darija spoken in Morocco and the more formal Modern Standard Arabic, but worried about how hard it will be. I occasionally worry I’ll go home having only spoken French, Parisian-tourist style, and therefore have missed out on much of Moroccan life. I will also go a year without seeing my friends, as most students choose to study abroad in the spring. Rubien mentions the difficulty of leaving behind his friends, as well as staying in touch. His program encourages students to use technology as little as possible, according to Buddhist tradition. As for Price, she mentions a frequent worry of many students going abroad:
 
“I’ll be one of about 30 students, we’ll all be travelling together and spending a lot of time in close contact, so if things are awkward or we don’t get along, it could get weird or tense.”
 
Then again, practices like the Swat Swivel and avoiding past hookups in Sharples should have prepared us for small awkward groups. Having survived Swarthmore, its geeks and academic stress and coffee talks, we are ready to survive a semester surrounded by wholesome  American college kids and pretending we’re able to learn a new language. I even have some Very Wise Rules for anyone planning to go abroad. If things go terribly and you want to call home and bitch your heart out, do remember someone nearby may speak English, and you don’t want be the rude American tourist. To my fellow students headed for North Africa, please don’t mention belly dancers or snake charmers in your online reviews – it’s embarrassing. Not that I don’t expect to commit severals screwups.
 
Have a nice summer and fall semester, everyone! I’ll be back in January, doubtlessly writing something mean-spirited about Annoying Americans Abroad or how much I hate being back on campus in winter.

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