What is the value of a study-abroad experience? What was the value of my time spent immersing myself in Jordanian society?
Because of my scientific background, I am ever so willing to elaborate about how weak anecdotal evidence is. I understand fairly well the many shortcomings of using raw personal experiences to support empirical claims. In our everyday experiences, we do not usually take into account things like sample size, selection bias, confounding variables, and cognitive biases like confirmation bias, even though these are important factors to consider when weighing evidence. This is why we need scientific methodology; we need to keep our beliefs and convictions in check, particularly when they are vehement. At a luncheon with a few of my classmates from the Ali Baba International Center, some of my colleagues expressed support for the enterprise known as Complimentary and Alternative Medicine. After I mentioned my skepticism toward acupuncture, my friend told me about her own experience concerning some pain she suffered from a while back. In order to treat her condition, she tried going to a variety of physical therapists and taking a variety of conventional medicines. Nothing seemed to work for her. Finally, she tried an acupuncture session, and voila! Her pain went away afterward. She was convinced that the session had somehow caused her alleviation. After clarifying that I did not want to delegitimize her personal experience, I began to discuss my own opinions about medicine. I talked about the evidence-based framework, about randomized clinical trial design, about spontaneous remission, about the placebo effect, about the economics of the CAM industry, and about why belief in the efficacy of acupuncture is not some willy-nilly opinion that can be taken or dismissed with equal validity for either choice. She was surprised, yet curious since she had not heard of anything that I had mentioned before; she even said I gave her a new way of thinking about her experience. At the end of lunch, I think my colleague had a better understanding of why I felt personal experience in and of itself is simply not on par with the scientific approach in terms of reliability. It is all too easy to be tricked by one’s own beliefs and perceptions; the brain is all too willing to automatically interpret things so as to fit in with one’s convictions and sweep away the details.
For my own experience this past month, I have probably suffered from the same cognitive shortfalls, the biases that come along with being human. If I sum up the number of Jordanians that I have met over the month, it will probably be some very small fraction of the total number of Jordanians. This means statistically that my “sample” of Jordanians will be likewise tiny, so it is not likely to be representative of all Jordanians, let alone all Arabs. I cannot make any confident generalizations about Jordanians or Arabs from my experience alone, though I could see the manifestation of certain Jordanian and Arab characteristics I read about from research present in the persons I interacted with. I also do not know how my prior experiences and beliefs have affected my interpretation of my experience up to now, as that is the nature of unconscious cognitive mechanisms.
That said, I think there is enormous value to my study abroad experience that falls in line with the value of study abroad in general. Studying abroad is definitely something that undergraduates should strive to do.
When we read the news in the United States, and we hear about stuff happening abroad, we do not usually see the people who are being talked about. The rise of the internet certainly has helped us see and hear people from other parts of the world, and perhaps some imagine that animated speaking heads will appear in our newspapers at some point in the future. Nevertheless, for now, we have still words, still photos, and numbers in print. On the web are many resources for learning about the people of another locality; videos, audio recordings, and live chat. Yet they provide only snippets of the life and people of another place, and a lazy person might not be willing to piece things together carefully and consistently. The television is capable of providing quality reproductions with sound and visuals of other countries. Yet what gets displayed on TV is often skewed by motivations that do not have to do with accuracy or well-roundedness. The only way to get a true feel for a locality appears to be experience; the only way to see research about another locality manifest before your eyes seems to be to go to the place in question. When you are there in person, you can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the elements of the municipality, the country, and the culture. Sensations come at the same time, and they continue to do so 24/7. As social animals, we generally like human-to-human interactions; when abroad, a visitor can meet other humans, both like and unlike the visitor. There is nothing quite like an in-person reminder that people from the other culture on the other side of the world exist.
The question of why one would like to study abroad in the first place is answered in a parallel fashion to the question of why one would like to study a foreign language. Since that is covered in a separate post, suffice it to say that the benefits go well beyond sightseeing as a tourist or having fun guessing the meanings of foreign-sounding words. I have had an amazing experience immersing myself in Jordanian culture, practicing my Arabic with a knowledgeable teacher and with a Syrian refugee, sipping bird’s nest soup after sunset during Ramadan, and understanding the struggles and aspirations of the locals that remain steadfast to this day. The Arab world is huge, and my experiences in Jordan are but a taste of the wonders of this timeless culture. In Jordan, I have seen that subcultures differ from one another, tribal norms vary from place to place, and distinctions exist between local traditional practices and attitudes and Islamic practices and attitudes. The subtleties of these understandings can come from the personal experiences acquired from talking to people abroad and environments experienced abroad or from in depth research. Because not many of us are willing to become Ph.D yielding intellectuals with years of research experience, it is more convenient to opt for the former route in order to acquire these subtleties. I am certainly glad that I chose this route thus far, and I am eager to share my experiences with my colleagues in my academic community and my hometown.
This past month has been filled with all sorts of life changing experiences. In my opinion, there are few educational experiences that can match that of study abroad. Studying language and culture abroad has countless aspects and benefits that cannot really be matched at home. It is hard to communicate these ideas if the listener has not yet had a study abroad experience; I have struggled on countless occasions to convey the things that I have thought and felt as a result of my time in Jordan. I am happy that language provides good-enough approximations of my experience, but sometimes it feels like good-enough approximations aren’t good enough paradoxically. Study abroad, whether for language students, aspiring foreign policy specialists, practitioners of international law, researchers in multinational economics, or the everyday introverted book nerd, will be an essential determining factor of the future of international relations. As globalization takes its toll, and the relationships between the Arab world and Western Civilization become more and more manifest, Arabic students who have experienced cultural immersion will play an essential role in multiple ways. Some would say the future of intercultural relations depends on people who have experienced study abroad. In this case, personal experience matters very much since the future depends on it. Even with all of the shortcomings that come with humans’ personal experiences.