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Sola '14: Want a real international experience? Take time off

Hundreds of Brown students study abroad each year, often with the intention of learning a language. They join other American students as they jet off on mass-booked planes, fidget through orientation sessions, drink supermarket wine from the box and roam their new cities toting backpacks of phrase books and Nalgene water bottles. While there is nothing wrong with study abroad per se, I would argue that for students who are really serious about learning a foreign language and culture, taking time off to live abroad independently is the only way to go.  
At least that was my experience. I just returned to Brown from a year-long leave of absence. I spent the summer of 2011 in Amman, Jordan, on a Critical Language Scholarship from the U.S. State Department, taking intensive Arabic alongside 59 other Americans. After a fall spent working at home, I moved to Lebanon to keep studying Arabic and truly experience the Middle East. In Lebanon, I took Arabic courses and interned at Time Out Beirut magazine before moving to a remote mountain region to teach English in an elementary school and live with a host family.
Of course, I sacrificed the logistical and social safety net of a traditional study abroad program. But living independently forced me to negotiate with Lebanese realities. A pre-arranged program vets and interviews students' potential host families, making sure that questions are answered and expectations are clear. By contrast, my host family thought I was a kind of servant, come to teach their bratty 15-year-old daughter English in return for room and board. However, she refused to talk to me at all - clearly, this was an ineffective return on the family's investment. I discovered their discontent when I returned from a weekend in Beirut to find my bags neatly packed and placed outside the door.
Turns out Lebanese people don't do direct confrontation, except for commenting on how much weight you have gained. That was a bad experience, but in negotiating with the mother and the daughter and the school principal in Arabic, I learned that getting anything done in Lebanon takes a long time.
I also acquired more Arabic taking time off in Lebanon than I did studying in Jordan. In Jordan we had a language pledge - a commitment to speak Arabic amongst ourselves all the time. But we invented a strange, garbled language, American English translated word for word. But Arabic pronunciation and modes of expression are very different to English. Our instructors and peers understood us, but ordinary Jordanians were bamboozled by our nonsensical Americanized Arabic. By escaping the student bubble and talking to Lebanese people, I learned how to say words and construct sentences in a way that made sense in Arabic.
Linguistics aside, it is also easier to find interesting people once you escape the student tide pool. In Beirut I made friends with journalists, aid workers, businesspeople, stewardesses and event planners. In Amman I made friends with other Americans, who were long on friendliness but short on lived experience and insight.
Taking time off offers a way around Brown's adherence to State Department travel warnings. Brown prohibits study abroad in many different countries, including Lebanon. The U.S. government currently advises its citizens "to avoid all travel to Lebanon due to current safety and security concerns." Admittedly, sporadic violence is a feature of Lebanese life, and American citizens have been kidnapped or killed in the past.
But I find this advice to be overly paranoid and more related to Israeli-American coziness - it was easy to stay out of trouble. For example, in Providence, you should not head into dangerous neighborhoods all alone lest you be robbed, raped or murdered. In Lebanon, you stay away from Hezbollah areas when things are tense, and you cancel your plans to Tripoli when gunfights break out. I felt much safer walking home after a late night in Beirut than I do in Providence or at home in London. The random violence of other popular study abroad destinations, such as Cape Town, frightens me far more than Lebanese political or religious violence. And after months of jumping at every firework, I got a sense of how it feels to live in instability and how the forces I study at Brown really play out in people's lives.
It is certainly scary to jump headfirst into a new country on your own, with little structure and no idea of how to spend your time. But the process of finding your feet is simultaneously exhilarating and educational. You fully engage with the realities of your new country and make friends in a new language. What better way to challenge yourself?

Katie Sola '14 scorns the falafel in the Ivy Room. She can be reached at



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