I always knew that I wanted to spend my junior year abroad; the only question was where. As an international relationshistory major, there were so many amazing options that were relevant to my studies that it seemed impossible to pick just one. I found myself deciding between either a German or an Arabic-speaking country, since those are the languages I have pursued in college. German is my second language, and I have been fluent since I was seven years old, whereas my Arabic is limited to what I have learned since my first semester at Wellesley. Even though both choices were exciting and relevant, neither one felt sufficient on its own. I realized that I’m interested in relations between those two regions, not just each of them in relation to the U.S. Specifically, I wanted to explore issues of migration, intercultural understanding and international cooperation between Germany and the Levant. So, when I found out I could spend a semester studying in each location, it felt like the obvious solution. In the end, I chose the Middlebury School in Amman, Jordan for the fall of 2017, and the Middlebury School in Berlin, Germany for the spring of 2018.
The first hurdle I faced was planning this adventure. Not only did I have to set up the program for each semester, but I also had to write a petition and get approval for my dual course of study. Although it was a hassle, the overall process was less stressful than I thought it would be. I chose two programs on Wellesley’s pre-approved list, and the planning was spread out over several months, which meant that my sophomore spring was only classically Wellesley-stressful rather than utterly panicked. On the flip side, it necessitated constant planning during my sophomore spring, summer and junior fall.
The hardest part was having to apply to my Berlin program, arrange travel and find a place to live, all while moving to Amman and getting my bearings there. Since relatively few students choose to study with two study abroad programs, Wellesley’s Office of International Study (OIS) resources were not always relevant to my specific needs. With that being said, whenever I needed help all I had to do was ask. I received great support from Wellesley OIS as well as the Middlebury program. Studying in two locations takes some independent initiative, but it is totally manageable.
Planning isn’t the only challenge of studying abroad in two locations. Since the beginning of my adventure, I’ve been in a constant state of adjustment. For me, culture shock is like walking on a sandy beach: each step is way harder than it normally is, but you don’t immediately notice as you take in the spellbinding view. Life in Jordan was different from anything I had ever experienced before, and adjustment took a lot of time and energy. Not only was I immersed in a new place and a new culture, I was doing so in a language (Arabic) I barely spoke! It took me most of four months, but I finally started to get the hang of it, and made some incredible friends along the way. Just when I felt like I’d found my footing, I had to say goodbye to Amman and move on.
Building a new life in a new city where you don’t know anyone is hard enough the first time. Having to do it twice in four months made me feel rootless, adrift and lonely. When people asked me where I lived, my answer was long and convoluted: “In Berlin, but I just moved here from Jordan, and I usually live near Boston because that’s where my uni is but also my parents live in Minneapolis.” Introductions were awkward. Meanwhile, trying not to lose my hard-learned Arabic while focusing on German remains a struggle.
That’s not to mention the experience I’ve been calling “inter-culture shock.” Going between US-American and German culture was a small step I had made several times before, most recently thanks to a Wellesley Global Citizenship internship in Dresden last summer. On the other hand, adapting to Jordanian culture was a big leap. But going from Jordan to Germany felt like throwing myself over an Olympic pole vault. For example, in Jordan, I had learned to ask someone how they were five times before getting to the point. In Germany, “how are you” is a personal and possibly invasive question. I also struggled with adjusting to different cultural attitudes toward smiling at strangers, meal times and conversational volume. It was frustrating stumbling over things I thought I knew simply because I was out of practice, both culturally and linguistically. Of course, everyone who studies in multiple locations overcomes challenges unique to those places and programs, but I imagine the process of adjusting to and between different cultures is also a common but unique experience.
To say that challenging myself in this way is paying off would be a massive understatement. I’ve gotten to create my own adventure that is greater than the sum of its parts. I’m grateful for the privilege of experiencing more than one place and for having met and learned from some amazing people. In Jordan, a country vastly different from any place I had visited before, I learned more about Arab and Jordanian language and culture than I knew I was capable of. In Berlin, I’m getting the opportunity to apply and expand this knowledge through an internship with a non-government organization that offers consultation, education and enrichment opportunities for immigrants and refugees, in addition to my coursework at the Freie Universität Berlin.
What is the takeaway? So far, I’ve learned that one semester in each place is not enough. I need to go back to Jordan, or another Arabic-speaking country, because what I learned in four months is merely a drop in the ocean. I’ve been in Berlin almost two months now and every day, I can feel myself growing as a person and a thinker. But if you ask me to describe the ways I’m changing, all I can say is “ask me again in September,” because who knows what the following months will bring?