Mary Marston is a senior at American University and currently interns with AMIDEAST’s Education Abroad Division. The first time she studied in Morocco was through the National Security Language Initiative for Youth in Marrakech. She returned to Morocco in Spring 2016 to Study Abroad with AMIDEAST in Rabat, Morocco.
This is Mary, enjoying January in Rabat in the L’Ocean neighborhood
Having been fortunate enough to study abroad in Morocco twice, and finally reflecting upon these experiences, I realized that most “travel tips” will tell you: what to pack, where to go, what to eat… et cetera. However, the single most important thing you can pack is:
Mindfulness (adj): the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment.
… Otherwise defined as being aware of what you are doing, and how your presence, impacts your surroundings. “Surroundings” can be defined as your host family, AMIDEAST institution (including employees and faculty, neighborhood, etc.)
I know this is a really abstract concept. So, here are some tips on how to break down this concept of “mindfulness” and how to apply it to your study abroad experience.
Educate yourself on the history and culture of your host country
In other words, look beyond the travel book. Taking classes relating to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and/or Arabic is a great place to start learning about the intersections of culture and history. If you don’t have access to these courses, or want to supplement them, reading local newspapers, watching television shows, and movies produced in and by the people of the country will both help develop your personal cultural competence and maybe, your language skills. Don’t worry; if you’re just beginning to learn Arabic or are a Francophone, there are plenty of locally-produced content in both English and French.
Understand that your host country isn’t your study abroad playground
Living, studying, and traveling, in a country that is not your own opens you up to a breadth of opportunities and new experiences. However, when exploring your host city or country, make sure to be cognizant about your actions and to respect local customs. Sometimes people feel “freer” to do whatever they want when living in an area short term because of a perceived lack of consequence, which causes some people to engage in not so well thought out decisions. Remember, what you do will impact locals’ perceptions of you, your study abroad group, and your host organization. By studying abroad, you are representing the United States, or your respective nation of origin. In other words, the way you act when studying abroad both reflects on you and your country of origin.
Respecting local customs can take many forms. One way is to dress appropriately for different regions you will visit during your study abroad, such as these American students
Aim for cultural competence, not assimilation
Let’s be honest. You’ll never become “Jordanian” or “Moroccan”, especially if you are just living in a country for four months or so. Instead of assimilation, which is defined as:
“The process by which a person or persons acquire the social and psychological characteristics of a group,”
… It is better to aim for cultural competence:
“… having an awareness of one’s own cultural identity and views about difference, and the ability to learn and build on the varying cultural and community norms of students and their families.”
So, what are some ways to become culturally competent? As previously stated, educating yourself on the history and customs of your host country is a great place to start. In addition to this, you should aim to:
Invest yourself in experiencing your host country with your host family and local friends
It’s great to develop relationships with American and other foreign students in your program. In fact, it is a great idea to go on group trips with them. However, experiencing a country through neighborhoods and wandering about Old Medinas with locals that know them the best are truly the basis of a life changing experiences. In addition, spending quality time with your host family is one of the best ways to show them respect. Even the smallest acts such as watching television programs with them, helping your host family (or asking them for help) with homework, or hanging out with your host siblings outside of the home.
Eating couscous with your host family on Fridays in Morocco is a great way to spend time with them, and enjoy Morocco’s national dish.
What tips do you have for being mindful while studying abroad?