Venture outside Europe for study abroad


Anna Bongardino | Contributing Editor

A camel poses for a selfie with Anna in Zagora, Morocco.

By Anna Bongardino, Contributing Editor

Young self-designated travelers who have just returned after a few months abroad often say things along the lines of “Study abroad changed me. It was amazing!” Many of us tend to roll our eyes in response.

While two, four or even six months in a country may seem like a short time, the things students learn abroad can have lasting effects — especially for those who study abroad outside of places like Europe or Australia, which are similar to the United States.

I spent four months in Morocco last spring semester. During the time I was abroad, I made friends from colleges and universities across the United States and all over Morocco. I stepped foot in the desert and rode a camel for the first time. I attended a Moroccan wedding that lasted into the early hours of the morning — as is custom in Middle Eastern culture. I learned the Arabic alphabet and refreshed my French vocabulary through daily conversation with Moroccans. I lived with a host family and spent several hours of one Sunday afternoon in a public bathhouse with my host mom and many other naked woman bathing in the heated tile rooms.

It wasn’t until I returned to the United States and had conversations with the people I left behind that I realized how much I had changed and more importantly, how much more I had learned about myself and the world outside of Pennsylvania. Morocco wasn’t the first place I’d traveled outside of the United States. I’d been to places like Canada, England and France, but I had never traveled outside of North America or Europe before.

But why did I choose somewhere so different? And why should you? While house-made pasta in Rome or the nightclubs of Barcelona might sound tempting, consider booking your one-way flight to somewhere that would allow you to experience more than you could in Pittsburgh.

Don’t get me wrong — by no means are Pittsburgh and Paris identical. From what I’ve heard other students say, studying abroad in Europe can be a great experience if you’re looking for a less stressful class schedule, close proximity to a wealth of other European destinations or a lowered drinking age.

In my experience studying abroad with SIT — a company that offers most of its study abroad programs outside of Europe — my courses enhanced my experience in my host country, but they weren’t as rigorous as they would have been at Pitt. While most study abroad programs are notorious for easier courses, going outside of the most popular destinations allowed me to spend less time studying from books and more time on experiential learning.

In small interactions each day, the world became my classroom in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if I chose one of the typical study abroad destinations. I learned how to eat out of a communal bowl with pieces of bread instead of utensils. I slowly acquired the skills to bargain with vendors in the medina — the old walled-in section of North African cities. When the last day of my program finally arrived, I realized I was still learning as much as on my first days in the country.

Wherever you study abroad, you’ll certainly witness large shifts in your knowledge and experiences over the course of your time abroad. I had gone from forgetting how to ask “What’s your name?” in French during my first week in the country to reading a French magazine about African politics in the Casablanca airport on the day I left. When I got back to the Pitt this fall, I enrolled in French and Arabic courses, newly inspired to become proficient in languages other than English.

But learning about the intricacies of a culture through daily life can be even more valuable than some of the more obvious knowledge and skills travelers tend to develop, like language acquisition and the ability to navigate unfamiliar streets and transportation systems. I grew accustomed to the adhan — the Islamic call to prayer — blasting from the mosque below the windows of my Casablanca apartment five times a day. When I first returned to the United States, I even found myself humming the rhythmic tune on occasion.

Anna Bongardino | Contributing Editor
The seaside Kasbah — a walled section of a city, historically for the purpose of military defense — of Rabat, Morocco is filled with homes, shops, cafes, gardens, and the resident ‘stray’ cats.

Often, when I tell people I studied abroad in Morocco, they’re surprised or impressed — sometimes both. Maybe studying abroad or studying abroad outside of Europe isn’t for everyone, but it’s not as challenging as you might think.

One of my biggest fears when I chose to study abroad in Morocco was that I would experience a lot of culture shock when I landed in Rabat at the end of January. In truth, I was too jet lagged and exhausted to notice whatever differences in culture might have been immediately noticeable. I was surrounded by a cohort of 60 other American students in a hotel for the first few days of orientation. Although we had just met, we went through all of the excitement and the challenges of adapting to a new culture together.

While I had traveled to a few other countries previously, I had never been abroad for more than two weeks — and I had certainly never left the country or flown by myself before. For some students in my program, the four months they spent in Morocco was the first time they left the United States. While the first few days seemed slightly more difficult for them, I watched their attitudes quickly transform, and they flourished in their surroundings over the course of the following weeks and months.

Even the most seasoned travelers will experience routine mishaps like lost luggage, food poisoning or petty theft. But these things happen anywhere you travel and can still happen even if you stay in Pittsburgh. I won’t argue that traveling to another country is easy or without its costs, but it is worth every inconvenience and penny spent. You only have to be willing to step outside of your comfort zone and challenge yourself to adapt to new situations. For the homesick-prone among us, this might just mean going to a summer program in London. For the more daring and adventurous souls out there, I challenge you to take a chance and go somewhere different.

You might be surprised by what you take away from your experience. I never considered myself to be a potential future expat, but I’ve been planning to return to the Middle East or North Africa for another long-term stay since the day I returned to the United States.