Great for Arabic, terrible for mental and physical health August 20, 2019

By (Harvard University) - abroad from 01/26/2019 to 05/16/2019 with

Middlebury Schools Abroad: Middlebury In Amman

What did you gain/learn from your experience abroad? Was it worthwhile?
I think academically/Arabic-wise it was a good choice for me. I learned a lot from my elective courses - about new forms of research, about honest perspectives on the Middle East and its current issues, about Jordanian society. Abeer, the Gender Issues professor, alone made this program worth it!! I gained a sense of resilience and got better at advocating myself, as well as a ton of travel experience outside of Jordan which was absolutely worthwhile.

Personal Information

How much international exposure did you have prior to this program? 1 month - 6 months

Review Your Program

* Overall educational experience

Academic rigor, intensity, resources, etc.

The academics were strong - professors were great, especially the Gender Issues class was one of the best courses I've ever taken. The academics were very intense - I spent hours each day doing homework and that could get mentally taxing after already talking in Arabic and going to class in Arabic all day. Professors were available for office hours. A certain professor, who also made multiple racist and sexist comments, exhibited strong favoritism for the men in our class which led to a fraught gender dynamic and hostile classroom environment. The language pledge made me much better at speaking Arabic but it also made it very difficult to form friendships with my fellow students. The program did NOT encourage a work-life balance.

* Host Country Program Administration

On-site administration of your program

When I needed support, the administration was absent. They provided little to no help when individuals on the program were concerned with their own safety, in terms of harassment, violent rhetoric, or health. Female students were victim-blamed and told to change their lifestyles rather than affirmed that the harassment they experienced was wrong. Hateful speech that advocated for a second Holocaust and Hitler from one of the administration's mentors was brushed off as "normal," and the blame was placed on the American students, including Jewish students on our program, for our cultural insensitivity. One student was criticized for speaking in English, not Arabic, to articulate a health concern. In the same vein, one black student was encouraged to refer to herself as a racial slur in Arabic. Safety and security of the students did not seem to be their priority - in fact the administration's default position was self-absorption and defensiveness when we students would point out our concerns with their handling of various matters. On the other hand, when I wanted independence and freedom from the administration, they were too involved. They pressured students into going on program-run weekend trips at the beginning of the semester, forcing us to RSVP and then not allowing us to back out of the trips once we found out their high costs. I was discouraged on multiple occasions from doing my own trips inside and outside of the country, for a variety of illegitimate reasons (i.e. threatening that the border to the West Bank would be closed when it was in fact open). Kerstin, the head of the entire program, would interrupt and dismiss the concerns of students, even in group discussions organized for the sole purpose of airing out concerns. She would roll her eyes at students literally crying at things they had experienced. She and the other members of staff are in serious need of some sort of sensitivity training, especially because their whole job is to make the students feel comfortable and often they would do the exact opposite. The program gets 1 star instead of a 1/2 star thanks to the educational administrator, the only one of four administrators who WAS supportive and helpful and sympathetic. Unfortunately, he left Middlebury after this spring semester. In sum, I felt that when I craved independence from the program and its demanding schedule, I was treated like a child and forced to do many activities I don't know I'd have opted into in the beginning had I realized. On the other hand, when I craved support from the on-site staff, I was often met with the opposite response - a sort-of figure-it-out, this-is-your-problem, mentality that made me feel my experiences were my burden alone to bare, else I was being culturally insensitive.

* Housing:

How satisfied were you with your living arrangements?

After an unanticipated emergency with my initial host family, I was abruptly placed into a second host family who quite frankly should not have been hosting students. I shared one bathroom with five people, which prevented me from being able to shower or even use the bathroom most mornings. I lived with an older host brother who harassed me on a few occasions, and with a disabled host sister who I have reason to believe was being abused by the host brother. I lived with another American student who didn't sense these problems, and thus I felt very alone and isolated, especially as the program removed themselves from helping me transition once I was placed in the home.

* Food:

Because I was living with such a poor host family that depended on the income from hosting to live, we ate foods with little to no nutritional value. A typical meal was rice, a small piece of chicken, and a can of coke. No fresh fruits or vegetables. My hair literally fell out and I lost weight as a result of my malnutrition in Jordan. The program's trips did not have food included in the already high costs, so I'd be forced to bring meals with me which was especially difficult because I have a food allergy. When the program did provide food it was snacks like marshmallows and candy, which were supposedly meant to sustain us through 10-mile hikes.

* Social & Cultural Integration:

How integrated did you feel with the local culture?

My host family felt more like a hostel I was staying in than a family - very transactional, with no cultural immersion and hardly any conversation. The family didn't eat meals together anyway, so I would dine alone most nights, and stay out of the house as much as possible. As a result, I found my social and cultural integration through close friendships with the other American girls on my program (the boys were very apathetic to the gender-specific problems we faced, and thus I avoided them), and a group of local Jordanian friends our age.

* Health Care:

How well were health issues addressed during the program?

See above about food and lack of support from administration.

* Safety:

Harassment was a constant concern for me as a woman. I had to be ultra-vigilant, and almost exclusively use uber instead of taxis to give myself one more layer of protection. Both ubers and taxis are extremely expensive in Jordan, which meant that the women had much higher daily costs than the men on the program. I had a friend who was almost abducted twice by men in her neighborhood. Many people mistook us foreigners for prostitutes, which heightened our vulnerability, especially because the University of Jordan, where classes are held, is located in the red light district of Amman.

If you could do it all over again would you choose the same program? No

I would direct enroll at the American University in Beirut. The program administration oversight, and the country itself, were the two factors that were worst for me personally.

Finances

* Money: How easily were you able to live on a student's budget?

(1 = not very easy/$200+ on food & personal expenses/week, 2.5 = $100/week, 5 = very easily/minimal cost)

Transportation, especially for women, is very expensive daily. Like $10 alone to get to and from the university every day. I had to pay for coffee in cafes every day to have a study space as there wasn't one in my home, and to have stronger wifi so add about $5 a day for that. Then I would spend money on food to supplement what little I was receiving at home. The program trips are very expensive and don't include food, looking back I would never have signed up for them and would have organized my own trips.

Not including program expenses, about how much money did you spend on food and other expenses each week? $100-$150
Do you have any general money-saving tips for future study abroad participants? Save a lot of money for trips to get out of Jordan.

Language

* Did your program have a foreign language component? Yes
How much did the program encourage you to use the language?

0 = No encouragement, 5 = frequent encouragement to use the language

How would you rate your language skills at the beginning of the program? Intermediate
How would you rate your language skills at the end of the program? Advanced
What was the highest level language course you had completed prior to departure? Level 3 Arabic
How many hours per day did you use the language? 10+
Do you have any tips/advice on the best ways to practice the language for future study abroad participants? Watch shows in Arabic with English subtitles.

Other Program Information

* Where did you live?

Select all that apply

  • Host Family
* Who did you live with?

Select all that apply

  • Americans
  • Host Family
* Who did you take classes with?

Select all that apply

  • Americans
About how many local friends did you make that you will likely keep in touch with?

A Look Back

* What did you like most about the program?
  • American girl students
  • Arabic got better
  • Gender Issues course
* What could be improved?
  • Program administration
  • High, hidden costs
  • Racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-semitism in Jordan itself
* What do you know now that you wish you knew before going on this program? I wish I knew how bad the administration was, how close-minded Jordan really is (it's depicted as very open-minded in comparison to other Arab countries in the West, but I found that to not be true), about all the hidden costs involved in being on this program, about the difficulties of daily life - transportation, lack of public spaces, harassment.

Reasons For Studying Abroad

To help future students find programs attended by like-minded individuals, please choose the profile that most closely represents you.
The Academic or Linguist
You went abroad with specific academic goals in mind; the program credentials and rigor of your coursework abroad were very important to you. You had a great time abroad, but never lost sight of your studies and (if applicable) were diligent with your foreign language study. Good for you!