Expecting the Unexpected, or Switching Programs in the Middle East and North Africe

I was working on some Arabic homework last week, and I found myself grinding my teeth as I stared at the vocabulary exercise. This is normal: Making sense of the verb forms, verbal nouns, case endings, etc. often makes me tense. But this time, I was just plain bitter as I translated one sentence: “Lebanese political leaders met to discuss the serious situation.” In the same exercise, I read this: “There are a lot of professors and students from other countries at the American University of Beirut.” Fitting, I thought. Sitting in my bedroom in Tunisia, these were small, sad reminders of where I began this semester abroad.

I spent 16 days at the American University of Beirut (AUB) as one of many international students, including my fellow Scripps student and friend
Savannah Mora SC ’15. I attended orientation, signed up for classes, and got situated in the bustling and fun Hamra neighborhood of Beirut. I frequented my favorite restaurant, Ta Marbouta, three times in two weeks, where I tried Armenian sausage soaked in pomegranate molasses and devoured the baba ghanoush. I joined the AUB Choir, a huge joy for me. I dipped my toes in the Mediterranean Sea at the campus beach at sunset. Savannah and I happily moved into a suite on the 10th floor of an off-campus dorm with a beyond-gorgeous view of the city.

Then, due to the worsening situation in Syria only 55 miles away, the U.S. Embassy pulled all family members of embassy staff out of the country. Next, they evacuated all non-emergency embassy staff. Protests began at the embassy once President Obama began entertaining the idea of a military strike. Meanwhile, I started my first days of class, bought school supplies, and could finally say I was completely unpacked.

Without explaining the entire logistical saga here, neither Scripps nor my family could take the financial risk and loss of college credit in the event that I needed to leave Lebanon at some point in the semester. So before the add/drop deadline in Claremont passed, it was either return to California or relocate. Our gracious Off-Campus Study Director helped us relocate to an School for International Training study abroad program in Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia, and within 48 hours of that decision Savannah and I were on a plane soaring westward to North Africa. After a wonderful 16 days in Beirut, it was a tearful goodbye.

I understand the concern for safety, and I understand the risk of the unknown. But to be clear, it was entirely precautionary. I never felt like I was in a dangerous place and I know that AUB is a wonderful community that continues to thrive every day.

I knew my semester abroad would take a lot of adjustment, but I never imagined it would entail this much change. This is an unique situation, not meant to scare off those in the process of applying now, but the thing is that studying abroad is hard. Going away is hard. Yes, switching programs after a year’s worth of planning and investment is extremely hard. But no matter how big or small the adjustment is in each situation, it’s the attitude that counts.

I’ve learned that it’s okay to struggle. It’s okay to be disappointed. Of course, sometimes I need somebody to tell me to snap out of it, but I now feel confident and secure admitting that I’m occasionally having a rough time. All of the smiling photos on Facebook are obviously real happy moments, but that doesn’t mean that my time away is always picture-perfect. When friends ask how I’m doing, I honestly say that I’m taking it day by day.

I really love Tunisia. My little group of seven students on this program are wonderful people. My homestay is nice and comfortable. I go to school in a picturesque neighborhood that looks like Santorini, Greece, complete with white buildings with blue doors. I am still beside the Mediterranean, which is a dream come true. The program took us to Toulouse, France for a weeklong excursion to learn about North African immigration, French colonization, and Islam and secularism in France. I enjoy sweet mint tea at cafes with my friends, and I appreciate every chance I get to practice my Arabic during my taxi rides twice a day. Currently, I’m planning my independent study project regarding political dissent in rap music in post-revolutionary Tunisia. And next week? I’m visiting the set location of Tatooine from Star Wars. Yep, that would be Darth Vader’s birthplace. 

The return to my home in my beloved little beach town can’t come sooner, and the day I get to walk hand-in-hand with my favorite Pitzer student around the 5Cs will be bliss. But here and now, it’s a huge alhamdulilah for the opportunity to be where I am.

Danica Harootian SC ’15 is studying Middle East and North Africa Studies and Anthropology. She is from Carmel, Calif. and is currently studying abroad with SIT in Tunisia.

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