When I saw the NSLI-Y challenge for International Education Week, the question got me thinking. “How would you convince your neighbor to apply for NSLI-Y? Share about the benefits of cultural exchange.” I mused over the question for a while, and tried to think of the best answer that would truly capture the enormous impact of my summer in Jordan.
I could talk about:
- The increased proficiency that I gained in the Arabic language, in which I went from nothing to conversational in just a matter of weeks
- My almost 24/7 Arabic immersion in which I was forced to use the language
- The amazing language institute I attended
- The deep bonds I forged with my host family
- The delicious delicacies and desserts I ate at a near-daily basis
- The museums and organizations we visited to augment our learning
- Our excursions across the country
- The lifelong friendship that I formed with other students in my program
But is that all? My cultural exchange in Amman, Jordan meant so much more. These were only the obvious impacts; what about the subtle effects? How had six weeks in a foreign country changed me?
It is human nature to fear the unknown. When people around me heard that I was going to Jordan, they were shocked. The reactions ranged from fear to skepticism, as if I was embarking on a mission to Mars. Interestingly, the opinions did not come from experience, but rather, were based off of assumptions stemming from generalizations about the Arab world. Although I myself didn’t share these feelings, I will admit that somewhere, unconsciously, these ideas do affect you in a small way, and instill feelings of doubt.
When I arrived in Jordan, I was surrounded by a large, loving host family consisting of host parents, four adorable younger siblings, and an array of cousins, aunts, and uncles. It was in this home that I learnt, grew, and bonded. It was with this family that I ate, danced, laughed, and cried. In just a matter of six weeks, I had become an integral part of a household whose language, culture, and religion were different from mine.
On my last day in Jordan, my host mom, siblings, roommate and I sat together for the last time, bawling uncontrollably as we clung to one another. My host mom asked us an important question (translated loosely): “After living with us, do you think that Muslims are good people? And Arabs?”
And our answer was an emphatic “yes”. In a world where people are divided by barriers of ignorance, it is hard not to be suspicious of those who are different. My cultural exchange in Jordan allowed me to take in and appreciate another way of life, while sharing my own. As my own perception of my host nation was heightened, my host community gained a better idea of what it means to be “American”.
Six weeks in Jordan through NSLI-Y opened my eyes and taught me an important lesson: the world is tapestry of people who may look different, speak a different language, and practice a different religion, but they are all threaded together by the same principles. It sounds obvious; but sometimes, we just don’t see things that way. Borders create divisions. However, as people, we are bound by a set of common values. Human values.
It’s human nature to fear the unknown. It’s also human nature to understand and build bridges that cross barriers of ignorance.