By Katy, NSLI-Y Arabic, Egypt Spring Semester 2010
As a sophomore in high school, I was the young Hermione Granger of my Spanish class. Anytime a question was asked, my hand would shoot up over-enthusiastically and I was genuinely excited about grammar drills and new vocabulary.
My Spanish teacher had been a missionary in Venezuela and would often tell us stories of her language struggles and cultural faux pas, with every tale emphasizing the importance of living abroad.
These stories and my love of languages inspired me to apply for State Department-sponsored exchange programs. Ten months later, I woke up to the call for prayer in Cairo.
As a NSLI-Y student, I spent five months navigating Egyptian public transport, practicing Arabic with my little host sister, and being the new kid in an Egyptian school. It was invigorating, challenging, and shattered just about everything I thought I knew about life.
Now it has been six years since I have come home and I have recently been re-connected to this program in many ways. I have met a lot of NSLI-Y alumni in the last couple months and talking with them made me reflect on the impact this program has had on my life.
I realize so many of the choices that most shaped my life, and the values that most shape my identity, all trace back to my time as an exchange student. I continued to travel extensively throughout college, and now work in immigration legal services, and I know in many ways the paths I took to get here started in Cairo.
To start, when I first came back to my anticlimactic small town in Massachusetts, I looked for ways to practice Arabic. I started volunteering at a thrift store that provided low-cost clothing to immigrants and refugees in my town, and decided to study the basics of immigration law for my senior project. My mindset was that the best way to integrate this experience into my life was to use my language skills to work with Arabic and Spanish speakers in my own community.
Later that year I applied to colleges with an essay about how NSLI-Y had solidified my passion for languages, and headed off to DC to study international relations.
In my first year world politics class, I was asked to write a paper about the role pan-Arab identity had played in the Arab Spring. I messaged my Arabic tutor in Egypt who had been in Tahrir months earlier, and asked his thoughts on this topic. He told me about the thoughts running through his mind between the Tunisian and Egyptian revolution as he decided whether or not to join the movement. I interviewed a couple of other Egyptian friends and wrote the paper heavily influenced by their firsthand experiences.
I knew I had a much deeper understanding of the topic from having been able to study the Egyptian political context beforehand and from hearing the perspectives of people directly affected. I wanted to continue studying like this, and decided to transfer to LIU Global, a non-traditional college where students study at centers around the world.
I spent my first year in LIU Global in the Comparative Religion and Culture program traveling to Taiwan, Thailand, India and Turkey for two month’s each to study the world’s major religions. I studied Buddhist philosophy from Taiwanese nuns, learned about Sikhism in the Golden Temple in India, studied Sufism in the tomb of Rumi- for a whirlwind of a year the world was truly my classroom. The following year I went to China to study Mandarin and world politics.
When I came home for the summers, I again looked for ways to integrate these experiences into my everyday life and I started volunteering as an English tutor for a refugee resettlement agency. My students were recently resettled Iraqi refugee families and we spent our summer afternoons eating kebabs and singing alphabet songs together.
As we got to know each other, some of them told me brief pieces of how and why they came to the United States- one family was stalled in the process of being reunited with their family still in Turkey, and the other had fled Iraq to escape religious persecution.
After having been able to travel freely to other countries, it was an eye-opening experience to then work with people who had overcome countless legal barriers to live here. From this, I wanted to better understand the asylum/refugee resettlement processes and eventually wanted to work in a refugee resettlement agency. And so I spent my last year of college interning for organizations that provided free immigration services to Central American refugees in Costa Rica and Arab immigrants in New York.
After I graduated, NSLI-Y circled back into my life again. After having spent the last three years on study abroad programs, I wanted to pay forward to someone else the experiences that had been given to me.
I started interning for the NSLI-Y program through iEARN-USA (which is how I came to be writing you this blog post) and I became a NSLI-Y alumni representative, where I plan events to strengthen the alumni network. It has been incredible to see how this program has changed since I was a part of it and to play a small role in its behind-the-scenes. I have been able to connect with alumni from all generations of the program and read stories from current students all over the world.
I’m now working as a legal assistant for a non-profit that provides free legal services to low-income women, many of whom are undocumented survivors of domestic violence. The experience of volunteering with Arab immigrants and refugees is what solidified my desire to work in this field, and it was the Arabic skills I gained from NSLI-Y that enabled me to do that work.
My story is one of thousands of NSLI-Y alumni that shows how this program influences our lives long after we leave our host countries. For many of us, this is the first experience we have to live abroad, and from doing so at a young and impressionable age, we often spend the rest of our lives prioritizing experiences that challenge us in the same way.
For me, this program set off a whole chain of events in my life. It has been both a springboard to life-changing opportunities and a backbone to life-defining choices. Because ever since this program, I have been building my life in experiences that give me the same sense of vibrancy and work that gives me the same sense of fulfillment.
And I carry NSLI-Y with me in the everyday things too. Like any place I have been, pieces of Egypt are stitched inseparably into my character. Egypt is in the way I dance; it’s in the way I cross the street; it’s in the way I do laundry (haphazardly and unsorted like my host mom taught me). And Egypt is tied deeply into my worldview, woven profoundly into my understanding of humanity.
Six years after coming home, I am thankful now more than ever for this program and the incredible people who work behind-the-scenes to make it happen. Through my internship with iEARN, it has been incredibly rewarding to re-connect with this program and see the process of giving this experience to the next generation of students.
And for all of this, I am thankful for the ways I am still a part of this program, and the ways this program is still a part of me.
This story is part of the “Coming Back, Giving Back” campaign sharing how NSLI-Y Alumni were inspired by their study abroad experience to make a difference through service projects or their careers. Submit your story today to firstname.lastname@example.org!