The Value of Studying Abroad

By Leah Spelman

In the fall of my junior year, I was beside myself with too many options for how to spend the rest of my time at GW. I didn’t know whether I wanted to stay on campus or go abroad, or what I really wanted to commit my time to. It seemed like every choice I made would impact my path further down the road, but I felt pulled in too many directions and didn’t know how to start streamlining my activities and stop driving myself crazy. Instead of being excited by all the possibilities before me, I was overwhelmed.

All of that changed when I decided to go to Cairo.

As an International Affairs major with a Middle East concentration, studying in the Arab world was indispensable. First and foremost, going abroad made everything I was studying suddenly important. Issues seem endlessly far away when distilled down to several hundred words in 12-point black font in an academic journal. They’re even less interesting when a professor requires you to read them and may only spend a few minutes (if any) discussing them in class. It sounds silly to say in retrospect, but going to the Middle East made everything I was studying suddenly real. I witnessed student demonstrations and bread riots while they were happening. I traveled to countries that were not on excellent terms with the United States, and spent hours waiting for border guards to let my friends and me through security. Going abroad not only reaffirmed that I was incredibly interested and passionate about what I was studying, but also gave me a great holistic introduction to the region and showed me that different social, political, cultural, and economic issues are very real and very connected.

Fortunately for me, I ventured into Egypt armed with some very useful information. The best thing anyone told me was that Egypt was a miserable, hot, dry, loud, and inhospitable place, and that I would have a terrible time there. The reason this was great was because it vastly lowered my expectations. I was pleasantly surprised when I went to Egypt. It wasn’t always easy, and it certainly didn’t feel like I was lounging on a nice, quiet, balmy, tropical isle, but I ended up loving it. I admired the energy and vitality of Cairo, and the fact that it was so completely different from anything I’d known before. I also wish that my friends had told me to bring my own shampoo, sunscreen, and to anticipate the medication I might need for different ailments, because what I wanted wouldn’t always be readily available in Egypt. I wish someone had told me a little bit more about what to expect from male/female relations, and I wish someone had tried to explain the decision-making apparatus and bureaucracy of my school before I got there. However, I greatly benefited from talking to many people before I went, and I would very much encourage anyone else going abroad to do the same. I ended up loving being abroad and traveling so much that I decided to head off to a whole other region of the world and spend my summer in Argentina before returning to the US six months later. Looking back, I’m incredibly glad that I decided to go abroad, and would encourage anyone else in the Elliott School to do the same.

Leah is a senior in the Elliott School, majoring in International Affairs with a concentration in the Middle East.  She studied abroad in Egypt and Argentina and hopes to pursue further studies abroad after graduation, preferably through a Fulbright Fellowship to Jordan.

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