Adam Lovell: Side-stepping traditional study abroad options

If you are beginning to look at your study abroad options for next year, and your interests are similar to mine, I imagine you might be disappointed. I just finished my semester abroad and there were two key elements I wanted to get out of my experience: language acquisition and an interesting cultural experience in an interesting place. As a student of Arabic, I looked exclusively at programs in the Middle East. I failed to find a program at GW that fit both of these requirements. All programs offered by GW were either in culturally barren cities or were programs that didn’t offer the level of language study I wanted.

By the spring, I was thinking that I wouldn’t go abroad because I didn’t want to pay GW’s tuition for an abroad experience I wasn’t excited for. That was until a friend stumbled across the University of Damascus Language Center in Damascus, Syria, a school that runs sessions in formal Arabic for $400 a month. Not only was it incredibly cheap and offered intensive Arabic study, it also allowed for a lot of free time to travel. Also, it was located in one of the most vibrant cities in the Middle East.

My friend had decided to start the proposal process with GW to get credit for the classes. However, she found that it would only be possible to get six credits to transfer to GW, because the program didn’t offer regular classes – and it would still be necessary to pay full GW tuition.

I started to do the math and plan out the trip, and realized that for $10,000 (465,000 Syrian pounds), I could afford classes, food, housing, airfare, travel, and spending money for five months. I could withdraw from GW for the semester, enroll at the University of Damascus, and still graduate on time with my AP credits from high school. As my friend continued to struggle through the paperwork to get the program approved for the six credits, I decided that I would go without GW’s support.

This is one of the most exciting and rewarding decisions I have made. All together, two other students from GW and myself eventually decided to withdraw for the semester and go. We arrived in Syria with our ridiculous-sounding formal Arabic and a few addresses. From there, we managed to adapt to a new city and a foreign language with the help of friendly Syrians.

A great part about going abroad without a defined program is that the entire experience is what you make of it. Getting followed by the “tourist police” for two days, by chance staying in a boarding house for the workers of the Al-Assad dam, and finding an apartment through someone we met on the street, were all authentic experiences that the planned nature of the Middle East study abroad programs don’t offer. Because of the University of Damascus’ schedule – we’d have one month in class and then one week off – we had ample opportunities to travel when we wanted to. We visited Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and rural Syria along the Euphrates, and we never planned a trip more than three days in advance. The university is full of foreigners willing to help you fill a car. But at the same time, there wasn’t any pressure to travel, as I had just as many great weekends soaking in Damascus’ culture at restaurants, galleries and film festivals.

Moreover, I received world-class instruction in formal Arabic and was able to supplement it with private instruction in the Syrian dialect because of the affordability of the university and its accommodating structure. I accomplished my goals: I learned more Arabic in the five months I spent in Syria than I had learned in two years studying at GW, and I was thrown into a fascinating and exciting culture.

My advice to GW students who are beginning to think about studying abroad is this: have the study abroad experience that you want. I don’t necessarily recommend you avoid studying abroad through GW. If you can’t get the experience you want, however, are tempted to go abroad and save $15,000, and can afford to lose out on some class credit, make your semester abroad your own. Going through the process, it seemed the Office of Study Abroad wanted us to think that its road is the only one to take. But there is at least one other, and it was excellent.

The writer is a junior majoring in Middle Eastern studies.

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