OU Senior Libby Trowbridge in Amman, Jordan.
OU's Arabic Flagship Program is one of only seven such programs in the United States, and draws students each year who wish to study the Arabic-speaking world. Students who study languages, like Arabic, that are considered "critical" — meaning they play a key role in global commerce, politics and/or culture, but are uncommonly studied by Americans — have access to a number of scholarship opportunities for study abroad, including State Department Critical Language Scholarships and Boren Scholarships, founded by former OU President David L. Boren.
OU senior Libby Trowbridge was one of the 2018 recipients of the Boren scholarship, which enabled her to study in Amman, Jordan for the full 2018–2019 school year. As traveling to such a different culture can be daunting, Libby offered to share her reflections and advice with the CIS Snapshot in the hopes of encouraging other students to take a chance on studying Arabic and the Middle East. For Libby, a double major in Arabic and International Security Studies from Mount Juliet, Tennessee, the life-changing experience of a year abroad in Jordan far outweighed the challenges it presented.
Snapshot: What prompted you to study abroad in Jordan? Did you already study Arabic, and if so why did you choose that language?
LT: There are a couple of different reasons I chose Jordan. First, I applied for the Boren Scholarship, and the committee is very selective about where they send students to study abroad in the Middle East. I knew they would approve Jordan because the monarchy has done a good job of keeping the country stable, and they have approved students to study there before. Second, I wanted to improve my Levantine Arabic, and Jordan is really the only place we can go in the Levant right now. I came to OU specifically for its Arabic Flagship Program, so prior to studying in Jordan, I had been studying Arabic for three years at OU. The flagship helped me tremendously once I was in Jordan, and I was a lot more confident speaking than most of my peers.
Snapshot: Where did you study and live while you were in Amman?
LT: I lived in an apartment complex close to Wasat al-Balad (downtown) with three lovely roommates from the UK and Austria. I studied at an institute called Al Baher. I really liked the program at Al Baher because I was one-on-one with professors for two-four hours every day. I had to be motivated every single day, and the personalized teaching allowed me to set the pace and discuss a variety of topics.
Snapshot: What would you say was the biggest challenge or challenges you faced when you went abroad? Did you experience culture shock?
LT: Oh boy! Yes, I had quite a few culture shocks. The first thing that got me was living in a big city. I went from rural Tennessee to a city packed with 4 million Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Iraqis. For the first time in my life, there were people around me at all times. I had to get used to having less privacy than I did back home.
The second shock was learning how to manage my water consumption. Jordan is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. Every Wednesday, the water truck would come to my neighborhood and pump water into the tank on our rooftop, and that would be our only supply of water for the week. My roommates and I had to strategize the best times to do laundry, shave, wash our hair, etc. Fortunately, we were all pretty low maintenance, and we only ran out of water once or twice. Even though I’m back in the States, the habits I picked up in Jordan are still with me; I have a hard time doing multiple loads of laundry, and I haven’t used a dishwasher in months.
The third shock was seeing the amount of smoking that takes place in Jordan. Every time I went out in public, the men were smoking — in taxis, buses, coffee shops, rooftops, stairwells. Some of my friends' professors would stop class sometimes to go take a smoke break. And then there was the argila/shisha/hookah. A lot of restaurants and coffee shops had designated sections for people to go and smoke argila together. The activity was incredibly social and great for building camaraderie, so the cafes were always packed. I had to get used to the smoke, and it definitely took a toll on my body the longer I was there.
The final shock was the emphasis Jordanians place on family. I really enjoyed this aspect because I think Americans are a bit more individualistic and we tend to live a lot further away from our relatives due to the size of the country. It was incredibly refreshing to see children, parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles gathered together in the King Hussein Park or eating at Hashem. I am a sucker for big family gatherings, so I really enjoyed seeing the different generations spend time together.
Snapshot: Can you tell us a few of your favorite memories from study abroad and your favorite aspects of the culture?
LT: One of my favorite memories from Amman was spending countless evenings on the rooftop watching the sun set and listening to the mosques across the city announce the Call to Prayer. I will never forget the city skyline as long as I live, because it is truly one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen in my life. Another memorable experience was when the Bedouins taught me how to drive stick-shift in a Toyota pickup truck in the Wadi Rum Desert. I remember the starry night and driving through the desert, mesmerized by the rock formations.
One of my favorite aspects of the Jordanian culture is the emphasis they place on hospitality. I met a lot of Jordanians who invited me over to their family apartment for dinner because I spoke Arabic and I wanted to learn more about Jordanian culture. Everyone was always incredibly welcoming, and I had some of the best mansaf and maqloobah imaginable.
Snapshot: Would you recommend study abroad in Jordan to other students? What are the benefits of going for a full year?
LT: I would absolutely recommend a study abroad in Jordan! But I do have one caveat: know your Arabic before you go, because you will benefit from the experience a lot more. You can learn the alphabet and grammar anywhere, so do it in America. Focus on having substantial conversations overseas. I listened to Syrians discuss their experiences during the Arab Spring. I talked to Jordanians about the monarchy. I asked Iraqis about their perspectives on the US invasion of Iraq. I got the most honest answers to my questions I could, and I didn't have to rely on an interpreter to understand the conversation. Nothing beats being able to communicate with people in their native language about their memories, beliefs, thoughts, fears, aspirations, etc.
Benefits of going for a full year? Well, studying Arabic is truly one of the most difficult things I've ever done in my life because it takes years to get proficient. Being overseas sped up my process of becoming proficient, and I was able to see my hard work pay off every time I communicated with people. I think the other thing for consideration is that it takes a long time to get used to living in Jordan. In a summer study abroad, you get a general feel for the country. But a yearlong study abroad? Jordan becomes your home. This is also incredibly important to future employers. We are entering a much more globalized society where study abroad is becoming the norm. A yearlong study abroad differentiates you from other candidates because you were overseas three times longer than other students. It demonstrates your dedication to studying Arabic and your ability to thrive in a culture different from your own.
Snapshot: Do you have any advice for students thinking about studying abroad in Jordan?
LT: Yes! I want to say this loud and clear for everyone: Jordan is safe. There are a lot of stereotypes and assumptions that the Middle East is an unsafe place to be. However, there were times I felt safer in Jordan than I did in America. There is a considerable police and military presence throughout [Amman], especially in touristy areas or near government buildings. Most of the city is well lit, taxis are easily accessible and businesses stay open pretty late. I was out all hours of the day and night, and I was able to get where I needed to go without problem, as did my roommates who didn’t speak Arabic.
One of the most important things I learned from my study abroad is that no matter where you go, people are the same. We all have the same wants, needs and fears. Regardless of the religion, regardless of the language, regardless of the country, everyone wants a roof over their head, a better future for their kids, access to food and water, etc. People get a lot less scary when you remember these things. Use your street smarts, but remember that most people aren’t actively out looking for trouble.
For women, I would tell them not to pack dresses, skirts, or flowy pants. Most of the local non-hijabi women in Jordan wear skinny jeans; in fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I saw them wearing dresses or skirts. So if you want to blend in, leave all of that behind. Also if you study abroad in the winter, pack warm clothing. I lived in an apartment without centralized heating or cooling. The walls had no insulation — they were solid concrete. We used portable gas heaters to keep warm, but the average temperature of the apartment was 45-50 degrees from December to March.
Lastly, you have to eat at Lezzet Istanbul in Jubeiha (next to the University of Jordan). That restaurant had some of the best chicken kebab I’ve ever eaten in my life. And you have to go to a Turkish bath at least one time. It is an incredibly relaxing experience and a great way to treat yourself after a stressful week.
Snapshot: Lastly, what are your goals for the future? Are you planning to return to the Middle East?
LT: Goals for the future? I would love to graduate! The study abroad delayed my graduation one year, but it was absolutely worth it. I am starting to look for jobs in Washington, DC. And I absolutely want to return to the Middle East. I still want to see Lebanon, Egypt and Morocco. I have started to check out Fulbright Programs, as well as Boren Fellowships and the CASA Program. However, I think my ability to pursue another study abroad will weigh heavily on whether or not I go to grad school. If I end up getting a job, I will go back for tourism purposes only. We’ll see inshallah [Arabic for "if God wills"].
Interested in studying Arabic at OU? Visit the OU Arabic Flagship Program website to learn more. To learn about upcoming info sessions on critical language scholarship opportunities and deadlines, follow @oucis on Facebook or Twitter.
Photos, from top left: Petra, 3rd-century monastery in Amman; Wadi Rum desert; Amman Citadel, featuring a temple from 162 AD. All photos by Libby Trowbridge.