Egyptian scholar reflects on experience

By REEM ABOU ELENAIN

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“What made you choose Allegheny College?” people would ask me. Well, I did not choose Allegheny College; it chose me. I came to the United States and to Allegheny College as a part of the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant program (FLTA). I started filling in the application back in April 2012 thinking that I would never be selected. Sixteen months later, I was sitting in the Pittsburgh airport waiting to be picked up by Jenny Kawata, international student director, and having absolutely no idea what to expect from the U.S. and from Allegheny College.

It was my first visit to the U.S., and to an English speaking country. I was excited because I thought that I would finally have the opportunity to meet native English speakers and try to understand their lives and culture. What I did not think of back then is how gigantic and diverse the U.S. is. To reduce its entire population to the term “native English speakers” was naïve and even absurd. Rather than learning about the “American culture,” I learned more about individuals as I started to make friends and connections.

My closest friends in the U.S. became the other language teaching assistants. We were going through almost the same challenges together.  We started to refer to our lives back in our home countries as “real life,” and life in the U.S. was a kind of a “parallel world.” This is not because life in the U.S. is a dream, but going back to being a student after years of having jobs reminded us of how easy student life is.  What I mean by easy is that there are much less responsibilities than that in the “real world.” There is a reading list that you need to read, a number of exams to be answered and assignments to be done. Everything is planned. If a student misses a deadline or does badly in an exam, they may have other opportunities to make up the loss.

It was also refreshing to go back and set in undergraduate classes. The subjects that I chose were very beneficial. Besides all the knowledge I gained, I was reminded of how it is like to be a learner again. I took a beginner’s Spanish class not only because I was interested in the language, but also because I wanted to experience what language learners feel when they learn a second language. Stammering broken sentences in Spanish and feeling frustrated by not being able to express simple ideas made me much more patient and understanding to my students’ struggle in learning. I was also reminded with the fact that students and teachers would never be friends. I would smile whenever I heard my classmates make fun of every single professor and teacher they have. I sometimes wonder what my students say about me. Or maybe it’s better not to know.

Something that I didn’t expect to happen was to learn more about myself. By coming here, I was stripped out of everything familiar to me. After being part of a majority in Egypt, I became part of a very small minority in Meadville. Instead of melting in the crowds and being almost invisible, I stood out. If I slipped and fell, people would always remember who it was months later. While doing my usual grocery shopping, some people would look at me hesitantly before approaching to ask questions about where I come from or about Islam.  Walking into a restaurant would sometimes feel like being a celebrity walking on a red carpet. Most people there would fall into silence and stare at me for a few long seconds. I realized that being part of a crowd can be a comforting and relieving sometimes.

Being the representative of my country made me try to know as much as possible about it. I started to read more about Egypt, and look up information about history, politics, culture, religion and even my language in order to be able to answer people’s questions.  I have learned more about Egypt and Arabic than any of my students have. Being a representative of Egypt on campus made me more sensitive about comments that people say. I noticed how I started reacting much more strongly than I would normally do to negative comments. It doesn’t mean that I hate people saying them or take these comments personally, but I felt here that if I don’t stand up for what I think is right, no one would.

Something else I noticed is that I started missing things that I never thought I would miss. I’ve always thought that I am an independent person, and that I don’t get attached to people. I didn’t expect to miss my friends and family the way I did when I came here. I started to miss, not only the good food, but even the food that I used to hate. I also missed speaking Arabic, my first language. Speaking to my new friends here only in English felt very strange and unreal.

I traveled to twelve or thirteen different cities in the US, more than many Americans have done while living in the U.S. People who have gone to Egypt, on the other hand, have seen more of it than I did. It made me realize how we take the places we live in for granted. I learned that traveling is more important than my education or work and I am planning to do a lot of traveling in the future inside and outside Egypt.

As time passed by, my new friends became my family. We eat, study and travel together. The idea of parting away from them now seems bewildering. I became used to speaking English that now I fear that I would speak English accidentally to my friends and family when I go home. Many of my dreams are even in English now.

I’m going back to Egypt in less than twenty days. I’ll be taking back home all the knowledge and the experiences that I had here. It would be cliché to say that my coming here has changed my life, but it did in many ways change the way I think about the U.S., myself and the world in general. I’m not sure if all this would change my life, but it would definitely affect many decisions and choices I would make in the future.