Student Stories

Jordan Study Abroad Experience: Language, Culture and Family

By Sarah Obeid

PictureI never thought in this lifetime I would eat a boiling, teriyaki-flavored snail on the side of a street in a foreign country thousands of miles from my American home. I never imagined coating my entire body from head to toe in a thick Dead Sea mud, rich with skin-hydrating minerals.

Two summers ago in 2012, I studied abroad in Amman, Jordan, where I completed the first level of Advanced Arabic at the University of Jordan. I stayed with my Palestinian grandparents, who reside in a small flat in Amman.

My grandfather, who I call Seedo, drove me to the university five days a week. Classes started at 9:30 a.m. and finished at 2:30 p.m. Students from all around America were studying Arabic at this university. During our lunch, my American friends and I would walk around the campus, then sit down to refresh ourselves with Arabic mint tea or instant coffee. The people of Jordan love instant coffee, especially my own family, who drink it daily.

PictureMy friends James, Erin, Jenna, and Diana and I would chit chat about things we could do in Jordan on the weekends and share our experiences with the culture. We would sit in the cafeteria or on benches near some trees, listening to the afternoon call to prayer from a nearby archaic mosque. The sound of the five prayers throughout the city is so beautiful; they are called out by the imam to bring unity among the people of Jordan. People are constantly reminded of the five prayers. Seedo and my grandmother, also known as Tata, never miss a prayer. I have never seen such dedication to faith.

The Arabic class was, to say the least, challenging, especially the grammar. The entire lecture was always in Modern Standard Arabic. I am very familiar with colloquial, Palestinian Arabic, which is what my family speaks and understands. However, Modern Standard Arabic is a whole different ball game. Colloquial can often use entirely different words than in Modern Standard. Even some of my cousins have trouble using Modern Standard Arabic and laugh when I would use it to speak with them. My cousin Sarah would tell me, “Ya Allah (Oh God) Sarah! We never say that, say this instead!”

canyonEvery week, we would have to learn a vocabulary list of around 50 words. We would learn topics about Arabic weddings, the economy of Jordan, concepts in Islam, etc. The instructions in the book were all in Arabic. My professor, Dr. Mouna, was a kind-hearted lady with a strong accent. She always smelled fresh and fragrant in the mornings. Dr. Mouna would only use English sparingly and would make exceptions here and there if the students were truly having trouble understanding a concept or idea. In one instance, I had not a clue of how to phrase my question in Modern Standard Arabic, so instead I used Palestinian slang. Dr. Mouna laughed, replying with, “Sarah, habibti (my sweet) I am very proud of you, but no slang is allowed, I want to hear only Modern Standard Arabic.” I studied very hard and earned an A in the course.

My father’s entire family is Palestinian but live in Jordan during the summer, where a lot of Palestinians live. My cousins, aunts, and uncles live in Qatar during the year, but in the summer, all the relatives come home to their parents in Amman. I was very fortunate in that I could always get Arabic help from my Seedo, grandmother or my Aunty Rana or Uncle Mazen. Having family with me helped improve my Arabic speaking skills because not only did I hear Arabic in the classroom and streets, but also in my grandparents’ own home. I was continuously immersed in the Arabic language. By the end of some nights, I longed to hear a little bit of English.

I had been to Jordan probably ten times before. I had a pretty good knowledge base of where to find the best Shawerma (famous Arabic sandwiches) cafes and coolest shopping malls. My aunt has spent summers buying shirt after shirt from our favorite place in Jordan, Al Hussein. The area consists of long streets of retail stores, some in which you can bargain and others you cannot. During this summer, my Aunty Rana and I bought clothes, jewelry, make up, and mouthwatering, salty corn from the corn man on the side of the road.

The Arabic program at the university also included travel packs on most weekends. There were some weekends I did not travel with my classmates because I had already made other arrangements with my family. I did visit Petra, the Dead Sea, Mount Nebo, and the ancient Roman Theater in the heart of Amman. My Tata took me to see the ancient Roman Theater built thousands of years ago in downtown Amman for concerts and many forms of entertainment. The large theater is breathtaking at morning, noon, and night. We climbed the theater’s steps eventually making our way towards the ancient Citadel, which towers above the city. The Citadel is one of the oldest landmarks in Jordan and contains ruins from the Umayyad dynasty. It is now a museum for visitors and tourists. My Tata and I stood on its grounds peering out in all directions. How I would give anything now to go back to that moment in time.

ruinsI felt the same way walking on the white, rocky ground of Mount Nebo one warm, sunny afternoon. We students trekked up the high mountain of Madaba. As we strolled around the area, we came to the ledge where Moses proclaimed to have seen the Holy Land while standing on the mountain. An overwhelming satisfaction came over me. Not many people can say they have been able to get anywhere close to the Holy Land.

When I was six or seven years old, my mother, who is also a world traveler, brought my brother and me to the Holy Land. I distinctly remember visiting the Dome of the Rock and touching the exact place where it is believed that Jesus died on the cross. I can express the same sentiment about Petra, an ancient Nabataean city. There was nothing like walking through the Siq, a narrow pathway filled with unique rock formations and colors. Reaching the end of the Siq and arriving at the Treasury was an experience I will never forget. My pictures do not do the Treasury justice. The Treasury opens straight up to the Petra Valley, a place chock-full of intricate carvings and architecture.

While Mount Nebo, Petra, and the Roman amphitheater are two spectacular archeological sites, the Dead Sea was a more intriguing experience for me. My classmates and I stayed at one of the few Dead Sea resorts. We only explored the sea for a full day. The Dead Sea has a high salt concentration, containing some of the most saline water on earth. No life can thrive within the water because of the high amounts of salt. People actually float without effort. The funniest part of the day at the Dead Sea was when a group of German tourists walked into the water, lay back, and read newspapers as if they were sitting in a beach chair on the sand.

The Dead Sea is known for its large supply of black, gushy mud alongside the water. We joined the other tourists, as well as Arabs, who caked themselves in mud, some of them from the face to feet. The minerals in the mud are supposed to heal, causing the skin to look and feel healthier. As the heat intensified, the mud hardened, feeling like a cover on my face. Removing the mud took forever, but the experience was worth it.

I ate traditional Jordanian food at a buffet in the resort. Arabs in general eat lamb, chicken, and fish, but Middle Easterners, especially Palestinians and Jordanians from what I have observed, eat lamb weekly. Jordanians and Palestinians eat mounds of rice. A popular dish, Mensef, contains lamb and pine nuts on a bed of rice covered in a thick, sour yogurt. The hot yogurt is plain, mixed with onions and lamb juice, tasting almost like a broth. Another common dish, Moulikhiya, includes chicken on top a bed of rice covered in a spinach stew. People often squeeze lemon juice on top of the meal. These meals are made frequently for weddings, parties, and everyday lunches and dinners. There is no such thing as eating lightly.

As an aficionado of traveling the world, studying abroad in Jordan was one of the best decisions I have made in my life. I consider myself lucky, for I had such memorable experiences and adventures at each location. I met friends from all across America and Jordan. I also advanced my Arabic speaking, writing, and reading skills. The Arabic language is something I will always treasure, something I have always appreciated. My dream is to one day be fluent in not just colloquial Palestinian Arabic, but Modern Standard Arabic as well. I will do whatever it takes to fly back overseas to continue learning one of the hardest, yet most extraordinary languages in the world.

Travel Bug Bites UNC Charlotte Psychology Major

By Brianna Woods  


UNC Charlotte psychology senior Heather Herman greets the world with a smile. She is smart and poised, and she exudes an aura of confidence, which was enhanced through her exposure to different cultures while studying abroad in London last summer.

“I wanted to study abroad for a change of scenery,” Heather said. “I chose London because of the culture and history, and I love the accents.”

Heather is a busy student. She works in the Psychology Department in the Colvard Building, and between classes, peer advising and assisting with research, she also co-founded the National Alliance of Mental Illness on campus. She is a member of three honors societies, two of which are international.

Heather was born in North Carolina and has lived in the Charlotte, Harrisburg and Concord area all her life. She had never traveled outside of the Southeast before her study abroad experience.

As someone who didn’t travel much growing up, Heather has now been bitten by the travel bug after her summer in London. “I would love to travel throughout America, the rest of Europe, like Greece, Italy, Switzerland and Scotland in particular, the Oceania area and eastern Asia,” she said. “It made me interested in joining the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps or teaching ESL (English as a Second Language), if I ever master a foreign language.”

From the array of study abroad options offered by UNC Charlotte, Heather chose a faculty-led program where she enrolled in an independent study with a faculty member through the Psychology Department. She also took a British Culture and Society course at Kingston University.

“The class had pre-set field trips to various places in London including the Southall Gurdwara, Hampton Court Palace and Stonehenge,” she said. “The professor was absolutely awesome. Her class was both thought- and discussion-provoking.”

A typical day at Kingston featured a daylong field trip followed by a night out with classmates at a local pub.

Heather took advantage of a popular opportunity with study abroad programs, by traveling to another country close to her host country. “Wales was the most beautiful place I had ever seen, (with) rolling hills, beautiful coastline, beautiful mountains, the Snowdonia Mountains. And Ireland was beautiful too. Everyone was really kind in Dublin.”

Before leaving for Ireland and Wales, Heather met Meredith McKague from North Carolina State University. “We met on a photo scavenger hunt in central London for our program through Kingston University,” Heather said. “We decided before we left for the trip that we would be hostel mates because we got along so well.”

Kingston University set up the scavenger hunt, which provided a fun and easy way for students to learn their way around London. “We were sent across central London on a bus, sent to Waterloo on the underground train,” Heather said. “We were to take original, creative photos upon each arrival in the hunt.”

For Heather, the scavenger hunt allowed her to continue with one of her favorite activities. “The love of photography started after high school,” she said. “I have always loved taking pictures.”

She created a collection of her images from the summer on a PowerPoint for the Psychology Department. Her photographs tell the story of her experiences: from Buckingham Palace and Stonehenge to beautiful green scenery and delicious-looking foods. Casual photographs show Heather and her friends laughing and walking across Abbey Road, imitating the famous Beatles’ photograph from the band’s 1969 album.

Dublin rated as a favorite place for Heather and Meredith. Eating at authentic Irish restaurants and listening to live music at a pub were among the memories they share. The two learned many things.

“We didn’t have much of an internal navigation system before studying abroad,” Heather said. “But during our studies I soon learned how to navigate us around.” Meredith describes Heather as a “fabulous travel companion because she forced me to be more of a free spirit and enjoy all my surroundings.”

Although Heather was able to travel to Wales and Ireland while studying in London, she wishes she had even more experiences. ‘’My biggest regret about studying abroad is that I did not plan my weekend vacations ahead of time, which resulted in a lot of missed travel opportunities,” she said.

Heather is one of many students of diverse majors who travel overseas to fulfill college credit and dreams. She is adamant about traveling and has adapted the notion that different locations and their accompanying cultures are “different, not better.”

Asked if she would recommend traveling abroad to a fellow student she said, “Do it. Bypass all possible barriers and make it happen.”

Additional questions and answers with Heather:

Q: Did you experience any cultural challenges? How did you handle them?
A: Probably the most challenging adjustment I had with the culture was understanding that ‘you’re welcome’ is not a common response to ‘thank you.’ Often, the response is ‘yeah’ and it appeared rude at first until I noticed it was common practice. In general, it was difficult to learn the argot of the British, but you eventually adapt.

Q: What was your favorite thing about the UK?
A: My favorite thing about the UK was the public transportation. As smelly as it sometimes was, it was convenient and made it easier to observe your surroundings rather than driving and focusing on the road.

Q: What was your least favorite thing?
A: My least favorite thing about the UK was the lack of preservatives in the foods. While arguments against preservatives can be made validated, it was difficult to make groceries last more than a few days.

Q: What sort of things did you notice about your surroundings (people, food, places), and what were the locals like?
A: The locals were kind and willing to show us around. Everyone was always offering assistance to those clearly studying a map. Just like in America, the dress differed upon location and ranged from casual to high fashion. One thing I never saw was a local in sweats, and I commonly wear sweats to school; it was difficult to adjust to that!

Small Town to Big World: Student Offers Inside Look at Study Abroad

By Nichole Swick
(Pictured: Heather Laws atop Arthur's Seat overlooking Edinburgh, Scotland.)

As a lifelong resident of a small town nestled in the North Carolina mountains, UNC Charlotte student Heather Laws had never flown or traveled far from home, but she knew her study abroad trip offered an experience she could not miss.

She and her family had worked hard so that she could travel and explore England, Scotland and France.

“I wanted to originally go the summer of 2011, but I didn’t have a job or enough time to start saving,” said Laws, a criminal justice major who is completing her final year at UNC Charlotte. “So when I got my job that June, I started putting back as much as I could of my paychecks until I left the following June.”

Travel abroad is never inexpensive, but with the help of her family, personal loans, and hard work, she came up with the money. “I always wanted to visit England,” she said. “Studying abroad through the school seemed like a good, cheaper way to do it. Think about it. You get class credit. It looks good for jobs. That is what you call a win-win situation.”

Heather and her family came to terms with being apart for an extended period. “It was especially hard to leave my family for a month’s time,” she said.

“We spend a lot of time together. Especially since my aunt passed away. Who was my Nanny going to go shopping with when I was gone? I would have to miss a first Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s house, which rarely happened even though I am 2 1/2 hours away at school. You could sort of tell my family was reluctant about the whole trip, but they knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so they weren’t going to say no.”

Heather’s mother, Mary Laws, who lives in Burnsville in the Blue Ridge Mountains, supported her daughter’s dream. “Although I missed Heather dearly, I was so happy that she had the opportunity to travel out of the country and experience new things, I wouldn’t have let her miss it for the world,” she said.

Heather, like many first-time travelers, had painted a picture in her head of what England would be like. Although it did rain most of the time, other assumptions and stereotypes proved untrue.

“Most people actually had good teeth,” she said. “There weren’t as many double-deckers as I thought, but trains were the main transportation. And you know how on trains and buses here we talk to each other, well, over there they are silent and read newspapers and always stared at us for being loud.”

Heather learned that the British people she encountered expressed themselves in a way that differed from what she knew in the past. “They were very blunt, not really afraid to hurt people’s feelings, which is a totally new thing to me,” she said.

She found herself wanting more experiences. “Even though I wanted to visit a lot more places, like Wales or maybe even a concentration camp in Germany, my overall experience opened my eyes to other cultures,” she said.

She also gained new friends from her travel group. “I didn’t know anyone in the group I traveled with over to England,” she said. “Sometimes I felt alone and stayed in my room. But by the end of the trip, I made a lot of friends and great memories.”

One of Heather’s best memories centers on the friends she made in spite of her shyness. “A group of us were in Central London at Waterloo Station checking when the train was leaving back to Surbiton, and of course it was leaving soon,” she said. “The train we needed to board was all the way at the opposite end of the station, as it always was. So, we all took off running.”

One of the group dropped something and fell. She “slid the most graceful 10 feet we had ever seen. The best part was, no one even stopped but us, and we were all laughing so hard we were crying.”

Annie Hutchins, her roommate and a close friend for more than three years, noticed a change in Heather when she returned. “She seemed a lot more outgoing and comfortable with herself,” Annie said. “Studying abroad or even visiting other countries is something everyone needs to do; it gives you a new outlook on life.”

Heather first learned about the study abroad program her sophomore year. Her Introduction to Criminal Justice class, taught by Susan Hodge, helped her discover her career passion, and presented her with the opportunity to study abroad. “I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do coming into college, but I took Intro to Criminal Justice when I was experimenting with different classes, and I immediately fell in love with it,” she said.

Here are a few additional questions and Heather’s answers:

Q: What was your favorite place you went to and why?
A: I really liked the Highlands of Scotland. Even though we just drove through, it was relaxing and beautiful. I also really enjoyed Parliament (similar to the U.S. Capital building). I’m really into politics and that kind of thing.

Q: Did you try any new food you liked?
A: I tried escargot, and it actually wasn’t that bad. Their candy was delicious; I ate more sweets than ever on my trip.

Q: What classes did you take when you were there?
A: I took British Life and Culture and my Criminal Justice Serial Murder Seminar, which was my last CJUS class I needed to complete my major.

Q: Who were your professors? Did you like them?
A: I had Dr. Phillip Woods -- his humor was more British, but he was easy to talk with. I also had Dr. (Charisse) Coston, who I have had for other classes, and (who) is always cool, calm, and collected.

Q: Was there anything you particularly liked or disliked about your classes?
A: Well, there was a group of theatre people at the university the same time we were, and of course we had to have our British Life and Culture class with them; they were always so peppy and theatrical, just annoying.

Q: How much did studying abroad cost?
A: Airfare was $1,200 for a round-trip non-stop flight. My classes were roughly $5,200. I saved up $1,600 for spending money. Thank goodness I had help from my parents and grandparents, and a $1,000 loan to help cover it all.

Nichole Swick is studying Communication Studies and minoring in Journalism at UNC Charlotte.