Aslema! My name is Katie James and I just recently graduated from Loyola with a BA in Political Science and a BA in Global and International Studies, and minors in Arabic and Islamic World Studies. In the spring of 2019, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Tunisia through the School for International Training. The program, entitled, Tunisia and Italy: Political and Religious Integration in the Mediterranean, focused heavily on the democratization of Tunisia following the Arab Spring, and the rise in global migration, specifically pertaining to the immigration of sub-Saharan and West African migrants.
Academically, this program was one that truly invests in the student’s interests. Every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday morning, we would have a guest speaker, who was a professional in their field, deliver a talk that focused on topics such as immigration, the revolution, legislation, law, LGBTQ+ rights, etc. Then in the afternoons on Tuesday and Thursday, we would visit different Non-Governmental Organizations, and on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, we would have language instruction.
Another inspiring part of the program was two trips that we took! First, about a month after the program began, we took a road trip down through the south of the country. We saw the Mosque of Uqba in Kairouan, Sidi Bouzid, and spent three days in Djerba, an island off the coast, just to name a few. Moreover, we spent three weeks in Sicily, where we focused on immigration and the reasonings behind the influx of West African and Sub-Saharan migrants in Italy. It was such an eye-opening experience – no amount of articles or documentaries prepare you for hearing first-hand accounts of the journey’s made.
During the last five weeks of the program, we had the opportunity to either do an internship or an independent research project, and the Academic Director, Dr. Mounir Khelifa, ensured that every student had an advisor that was an export in their field to help guide us through the process. Dr. Khalifa was also a pivotal part of the program, as he always made himself available for the students, and genuinely cared for each of us individually.
Throughout my 3.5 months in Tunisia, I lived with a host family who I still talk with regularly. Living with them was by far the best part of my experience, as I spent evenings, weekends, holidays and birthdays as a member of their incredible family. My host brother and sisters were so helpful with my Arabic homework, and in turn, I would help with their English homework. My host family was so kind in sharing their space with me, a complete stranger: they welcomed me with open arms and made me feel like a true member of not only their immediate family, but their extended family too. They lived on one level of a house, in a compound with my host dad’s extended family. In total, I would estimate that there were about 30 people who in my compound, and every day when I would leave for school or arrive home, they would stop and ask me how my day was. While I probably didn’t understand all of their Arabic, it meant to much that they were so welcoming.
I was in Tunisia for the first ten days of Ramadan which was such an incredible part of my abroad experience. It was amazing to witness how the community completely changes to accommodate fasting during the day – I would get home from school and everyone would be asleep. But then with the last call to prayer, my host family would all gather and we would break fast with a date and glass of water, then sit, eat, and laugh for hours.
Studying abroad in Tunisia was truly one of the best decisions I have ever made. Before I went abroad, I really struggled with the decision between going and experience a part of the world that was foreign to me, versus staying and continuing in another leadership role in my sorority. Looking back, it should have been such an easy decision because the whole point of going to undergrad is gaining new experiences and taking advantage of every learning opportunity that comes your way. It may sound a bit cheesy, but prioritizing yourself and your learning experience will provide you with the tools necessary to be a confident, educated, and motivated member of society.
While I was in Tunisia, I was reminded that no one person’s experiences are greater or more important than the other, even if you don’t speak the same language, have the same education levels, or have similar experiences. Yes, going to a foreign country was a bit uncomfortable at first because you are just trying to adjust to the time change and figure out how everything works. But to be surrounded by people who are so different than you are is something that I found to be so comforting. It expands your view of humanity and reminds you that the difference between yourself and someone on the other side of the world is merely superficial. Stepping outside of your comfort zone is a humbling experience, but you gain so much more knowledge about yourself and others that you otherwise wouldn’t have. I gained an incredible amount of independence, resilience, and trust in my capabilities as an Arabic language student when I went abroad, and that is something I otherwise would have not gotten if I had stayed in Chicago.