Thursday, June 5, 2014

Coming Out Clean

"Dress Like an Emirati" Night.
From left: Argentina, USA, Bangladesh, Venezuela, Egypt, Palestine
All values in this world are more or less questionable, but the most important thing in life is human kindness.”— Yevgeny Yevtushenko

I shouldn't have waited until the end to write this one.
I had so much more to say this semester, believe me. I wanted to talk about the purpose of education and the future of the Emirates from a business perspective. I wanted to describe the rapid-fire changes that are suddenly so normal, and perhaps even vital, to the life I've grown accustomed to. Here are some selections from different points – fragments of bigger ideas I never disciplined myself to develop.

Musandam, Oman.
April 20:It turns out that heat arrives at the American University of Sharjah not only suddenly but in a factor of two. While my family experienced mid-April snow, I brave my first week of triple digit heat, mercifully dipping to a breathable 80-odd degrees once the sun falls behind the desert's horizon each day. And amidst the hopeful social media posts of my American friends celebrating the end of the spring semester, I am faced with one of the busiest six-week periods of my young life, as our semester still has until the first week of June before completion...

The Bosphorus | Istanbul, Turkey
May 3: I'm leaving. So soon. The date has crept up on me quickly, as it tends to do. I feel caught in the middle of several forces pulling in opposite directions – the desire to finish my academic courses with excellence, to capture the moments that are slipping away from me through my writing and my photography, to preserve the friendships with the precious little time I have left, and the pressure to focus attention on my affairs in the United States, neglected for more than four months. This is not the easy part of studying abroad. This is the hard part.

It wouldn't be this way if this place had not become such an authentic and meaningful home to me. This effect first became real upon my return from my spring break in Istanbul (which, unfortunately, you may never hear about, due entirely to my own blogging delinquency). I was fresh off of a magical experience and was finally feeling refreshed after a hectic round of midterms. And I was so happy to come home. Home: it's the place where your heart lies...

The view from the world's tallest building.
May 15:
Taking a semester abroad (or any sort of international assignment, really) is, in one way, the creation of a new life. You put your old one on hold – suspend your cell phone service, your auto insurance, and you leave your car, apartment, friends, and family behind. In this old life's place, you build a new network predominantly from scratch. You reform habits according to the particular environment. The opportunities and conversations you encounter have a profound influence on your thoughts and even upon the impressionable portion of your personality. Free from the rigidity of your previous reputation, you have the ability to step outside your previous bounds to experience things you've never tried or had access to before. And this is liberating, because for a preordained amount of time, you can try out a new existence, risk-free.
So now that we are just over two weeks out from the end of it all, from the day I scrabble my possessions back into their suitcases and return to natural soil, the question comes from all directions: are you happy to be going home? There is no "yes" answer to this question without a healthy dose of "no" as well. I cannot wait to return to the dear friends and family with whom I've only been able to maintain a wispy correspondence from abroad. But simultaneously, I cannot bear to leave behind the beauty I have cultivated in this space...

No longer simply the USA.
Two days ago – June 2: I'm finished. Khallas. Packed and ready to depart. Classes and finals are concluded. I did well academically, but it's not my main consideration. All day I walked about in a functional daze, because it wasn't really hitting home yet that this was it, that these were the goodbyes, the last glimpses, the handshakes and hugs and words of affirmation. 

As I sit here tonight, snatching a few precious moments to write, I am moved by the grandeur that my experience has filled me with. The truly intoxicating part, the reward beyond a course's final grade or a single highlight of any trip to any location, is the person I got to become when I stepped away from most of the institutions and functions that my life has previously been defined by. I started totally afresh. Friendships came easier here than ever before, and even today – my last day – I met ever the more persons whom I hope to see again. That's the biggest victory of all.

In the end, my experience was not about traveling to new countries, sampling local cuisine, or snapping photographs on location at the the sights that friends will envy me for having visited. (However, I totally did all of those things and it's okay if you're a little bit jealous.) Rather, it was about forging human trust with the Other, who in their alterity is not like you. It's about welcoming another person and lifting them to a position of importance that is on equal footing with your own self-consideration. After all, business is built on a market structure, and despite a myriad of regulatory frameworks currently in place, this entire system of commerce in which we engage is still dependent on the individual actions and responsibilities of ordinary people like me and you. Trust, then, is rendered essentially vital for our own preservation and improvement as a species. We can cultivate it with our travel and with our investment into relationships, and I urge you to take part in this rich tradition.

I entitled this post "Coming Out Clean." To borrow a baking analogy, a project isn't finished until a toothpick can be inserted without any accompanying residue upon its extraction. This is not a possibility with study abroad; you cannot come out clean. You build a life that is new and amazing, and with it, you build friendships that transcend geographical proximity. You shouldn't be fully at peace with leaving, and I certainly am not. I am not pretending that I did not face obstacles. My time at AUS was not easy; anyone who describes an exchange semester as such perhaps didn't do it properly. But the challenges have shaped the contours of who I've become, and as I return home to the United States, I can look at myself and say with no difficulty that I am delighted with the person I'm becoming through my experiences. The task now is to take it to the streets – to introduce the new me to my older, more established existence.

On paper, it's back to "real life" and the prospects of an internship that starts in four days. Internally, though, I know now that I occupy two worlds – here and there – and I'm not fully me without them both. I'm happy with change, but this part of coming home isn't totally cheery. At least I know that soon enough, my heart will call me back to the rest of the world. So maybe we'll call this a love letter addressed to study abroad, rather than a eulogy. I like that thought, and it's where we'll finish for now.

Until we meet again, dear world. I love you.

Frankfurt, Germany: looking ahead to what dreams may come.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Halfway Home

Still transfixed by this city's beauty.
I have to believe that Ludwig Miles van der Rohe was right: God is in the details.

As I ruminated this morning on the incredible position in life within which I now find myself, this thought echoed throughout my mind, convincing me of its truth in my own history. Though I often use large goals to self-motivate, my greatest pleasures I've always derived from infinitely small moments – the chemicals I feel at morning snowfalls, at smiles from dear friends, and at the serendipitous times that all the disjointed elements of my life fall into each their own right places and my journey makes sense. If we use this metric to judge my study abroad experience, it adequately suffices on the first account. I've had some incredible highlights that I will always be able to refer to when I reflect back upon this trip. But my time has granted me so much more than highlights; it has over and over again given me incredible, small moments I'll never be able to replicate or replace. It is for this that I am most thankful.

I sit today at the exact halfway point of my semester. Two months ago, I began class, and two more from now, I'll be leaving to return to my home and family in the United States. I don't like using this colloquialism terribly often, but time in this context really does fly. Part of the reason (aside from exams) that I've had trouble crafting a blog post over the past few weeks is that there is too much to discuss, and it's happening more quickly than I can commit to either words or reflection. Today, though, necessity wins out; we move on with our Emirati narrative, comprehensive or not.

The practical side of things: since I'm obligated to discuss some of this, let's blitz through it first, then move on to the fun stuff. My hospital dorm room is found below, if you're curious about my living conditions:

The closets on the right house most of my clothing. 

Disclaimer: I'm a guy. We don't put much effort into décor.

Though I've been here 9 weeks, I've had little occasion to decorate it or rearrange very much. The reason for that is that I spend very little time in dorms, except for sleeping and eating. It is cleaned weekly by maintenance staff, and I have full climate control, along with my own bathroom, hot plates, mini fridge, sink, cabinets, and shower. Linens, pillows, and laundry facilities are provided at no additional cost. I'm happy with the dorm living; compared to many of my accommodations on other trips abroad, this one weighs in above average, and the courtyard to which my room opens is beautiful.

Always a welcome sight at the start or finish of my university days.

The typical school day follows a pretty simple routine: I wake up, shower, eat breakfast, have coffee with my friend Tigran, and head to class. Since I'm taking 15 credit hours and want the freedom of afternoons, most of my classes are in the mornings. It's not a far walk to class from the dorms; I can get from my bedroom to any academic building in about ten minutes, and that holds consistent for all the dormitory buildings. I love walking on our campus; AUS is not only beautifully manicured but also home to a fairly small student population (just under 6,000). This means that I run into my friends all of the time, and because people here are so friendly, I virtually never walk with headphones in my ears anymore.
My Armenian friend with our Armenian coffee.

When I last blogged, I talked for a while about how easy I was finding my courses. This is not exactly the case any longer. As a native English speaker, I do find the coursework easier, relatively, than do many of my classmates. However, I am still challenged at or above the expectations to which I've grown accustomed at USC. A score of 95 is required instead of 90 for an A here; even if the course is easy, this number is still difficult to attain. Little surprise, then, that the Dean's List is a more worthy accomplishment at this university than what I am used to.

The content of my courses has been consistently rewarding. My favorite class is modern philosophy, but the four business courses are interesting as well. It was a bit difficult last fall to pick my courses, because the prerequisites here differ from the structure of USC's business curriculum, but now that I'm halfway through the semester, I've fallen into a comfortable rhythm and I love the schedule I have.

Through my modern philosophy class, I've learned a great deal about the Western World despite currently being away from it.

My professors, apart from course content, have for the most part lectured adequately but occasionally disappoint me. I must first disclaim, though, that through my first five semesters, I've had extraordinarily good fortune with professor selection. I rely on and the recommendations of my peers when I am at home, but these resources were unavailable to me on my exchange semester. I didn't land the best professors that this university has to offer; this much I've ascertained through conversations with peer students here. However, the cross-section I do have is supposed to be fairly representative of the average at AUS. 

The classroom atmosphere I don't find to be quite as dynamic here; this can be partially chalked up to students coming from cultures less inclined to interact with authority figures (professors) as freely as American students do. In addition, because midterms and exams take up the lion's share of course weight (typically 80-90%, whereas in the U.S., I'm used to 40-70%), most professors and students don't find the day-to-day class sessions to be very important, bringing the quality of our meetings somewhat down.

Outside of the classroom, though, I have nothing but praise for this place. The extracurricular opportunities, friends I've made, and availability of sights for exploration have really buoyed my semester. The only predominant drawback is perhaps the isolation of the campus; public transit is sufficient within the emirate of Dubai, but in Sharjah, you need a friend's car or a taxi to get around. Thankfully, the exchange office here does a very nice job of organizing low-cost trips for us that compensate for the transportation difficulties we run into, and with advance notice, it will even charter a bus for us at no cost for our use on self-organized outings.

The Dubai Marina on a recent excursion.
Playing football on the IXO-organized desert safari two weeks ago.

The persuasive side of things: you may be reading this description of daily life in conjunction with my previous posts and wonder what sets this place apart from the others, when all is said and done. If you're a student prospectively looking to study abroad, I understand that you're looking for a dynamic opportunity that will expose you to new ideas and experiences in a foreign part of the world, one that will advance your academic knowledge as well as your understanding of culture in a real-life context. So I want to make sure I paint a picture of the American University of Sharjah accurately and with care, because it's important to do so.

The beauty of this place lies in its people. I've said this consistently throughout my blogging, but that is because the truth of this statement does not fade over time. Academically, maybe you'll find better, more prestigious institutions in Europe or Southeast Asia. Perhaps you want to travel to a new country every weekend: continental Europe, again, is probably your ticket with its high-speed, low-cost railways. If you're seeking deep cultural immersion and practice with a language other than Arabic, go to where you can realize that opportunity.

But if you want to experience a very wide variety of cultures in one location, meet some of the best friends you'll ever make, and join a university of students whose value is relationship before anything else, I would encourage you to study here. You'll be older than the university itself, it's true; AUS was founded in 1997. But at the same time, you'll have the unique privilege of learning and even contributing to how an educational institution and a country (the UAE turns 43 this year) grow rapidly in their embryonic stages. You'll run into frustrations at times, but these are typical of all longer-term experiences in a foreign context. The ways that you find to solve these problems will serve as valuable lessons for future experiences, too.

The Palestinian Cultural Club taught me incredible amounts about a country we in America are undereducated about.

Most valuable of all, you'll be treated handsomely at each turn by your peers – not because you have done anything to prove to them your worth but instead because that's the nature of this wonderful place. This is a model we all can benefit from acquiring. In an educational context, establishing an attitude of respect is essential for the free exchange of ideas, beliefs, and knowledge. In a business context, we have to remember that many cultures differ from the universalism of the United States. Instead of evaluating solely on cost, quality, and other quantitative measures, organizations in these cultures put the relationship first and the transaction afterwards. In a human context, people the world round will respond positively to kindness and cultural sensitivity. These qualities, I would venture, are essential for using a transnational mindset.

When you travel using the above criteria of kindness, relationship-orientation, and respect, I believe that the world wins. International business, after all, is about more than just making a profit, strengthening competitive advantage, or exploiting opportunities and markets across borders. It's also concerned fundamentally with sharing cultures, meanings, values, and ideas between groups globally. As with any set of human interactions, international business is thus still aligned with an ethical objective of promoting eudaimonia – a concept of Aristotle's that translates as "human flourishing." Business is one of the many tools we use to examine how to improve the ways humankind lives within society; since this society is globalizing quickly, our understanding of life across the world must similarly grow.

I'll leave you with that last thought, lest I devolve further into full-blown philosophizing. AUS has been an excellent home for me these past two months. I am very excited to see what the latter half of the semester has in store for me. 

Coming up next time is a fun topic: my recent spring break trip to Istanbul, Turkey.

مع السلامة (Ma Salaam) 
– Jon

Happiness is a Gulf cruise in Dubai on a perfect, starry night.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Settling In and Joining Up

After three long-winded posts in the first two weeks, I have taken a definitive step back and paid attention more to what's happening here in the UAE, rather than frantically trying to relay it back to the homefront as quickly as possible.

This is not an admission of idleness. To the contrary, I've been hard at work (and play, of course). Here are a few rapid-fire highlights / observations for those of you who prefer the quick version:

Highlight 1: I joined the track and field team at AUS last week as a middle- and long-distance runner. With a significantly smaller student body here and a comparable lack of interest in collegiate athletics relative to the United States (aside from football [soccer] and basketball), it's actually fairly easy to join a varsity team here. From what I know, we've also had exchange students on the swimming, basketball, table tennis, squash, and volleyball teams over this semester and last. It's an exceptional experience. Most of us probably participated in team sports at one level or another during adolescence; I was fortunate enough to attend a high school where I could play soccer, basketball, and run cross-country at a competitive level. That luxury went away three years ago when I chose a large, public Division I university (where essentially all student-athletes are on scholarship and ridiculously talented), but it's been amazing to have the opportunity again here. If you're a runner, you understand what I mean when I talk about the joy of making footfalls on a track in unison during practices and the camaraderie you develop with your teammates in the process. It's been great to make some friends in a context beyond the typical "I have class with you" or "I'm in dorms with you" routine. And don't think for a minute that I'm not planning to make a mark beyond participation; I can't wait to compete once the meets start. I miss the feeling of medals around my neck.

Highlight 2: Sharjah Lights Festival. Pictures do this event better justice than do words.

Sharjah Ports
Emirate fountains are tops.
Mosques are so beautiful here.

Observation: If you want the real study abroad experience, there's no substitute for making local friends. While our exchange office has been brilliant about organizing trips for those of us coming from other places, my favorite moments have consistently been the spur-of-the-moment outings with my friends: jaunts into Dubai (on motorcycles, no less), chai karak runs, bonfires on the Jumiera beach (which the Royal Palace Guards quickly but nicely put an end to), trips to sheesha cafés on school nights to watch Manchester United-Arsenal football games, and all manners of other shenanigans. Students here know how to have a good time, sometimes (often) at the expense of studies. There should be no guilt in joining them at what they do best.

Highlight 3: We had the privilege of visiting the city and emirate of Abu Dhabi this past weekend! Our main stops were Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (the largest mosque in the country) and Masdar Institute (a fledgeling, albeit impressive, graduate research institution within what will – by 2020 – be a zero-carbon-emission city). And in between, we ate Iraqi food, which is seriously the best. Here are pictures for proof.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Sublime.
The cook insisted I take his photograph. I was happy to oblige.
This food is to die for.
Modern angles.

Afterlight, afterhours.

It's cool to have the future happen right in front of you
On the campus side of things, class here is going well; I have no major complaints (and nothing but praise for my Modern Philosophy course – it rocks). It's not a criticism or display of egocentrism in the slightest, but from my conversations with people of many diverse national backgrounds here, I have concluded that the most elite higher educational institutions exist predominantly in the United States and Western Europe. Being raised in America, my educational background is making the academic side of things very easy for me here. AUS is not a subpar university by any stretch of the imagination; conversely, it's ranked either at or near the top for anyone intending to study in the Gulf Region. But being a native English speaker raised in an American educational system gives me a tremendous advantage here. 

This brings up an important point that I would be remiss not to mention. To all the prospective study abroad students out there, let me be very honest for a moment. If you're looking for the superb, most elite academic education on your trip, go to Europe or East Asia. But if that is your expectation upon arrival in this part of the world, let me forewarn you, lest you suffer disappointment. Academia here is on its way up; this university is only 17 years old and already ranked in the top 400 schools in the world. But the real value of education at AUS happens outside the classroom. 

If you study abroad in the Middle East, you're not going to have the easiest access to fabled cities like your peers will in Europe. You won't be wandering cobbled streets in sweaters and scarves, a coffee in one hand and a croissant, scone, or panini in the other. You won't bicycle mountains or glide on gondolas through Venice. You're not going to be drinking pints of better beer than you can find anywhere in the States for less than the price of a litre-sized water.

But if you study abroad in the Middle East, here's what you will have. You will be able to take an long objective look at the entire Western World – Europe, North America, South America [to a degree], Australia / New Zealand, and arguably even some parts of the Pacific Rim. You will be able to question why you want the things that you want, why you're (likely) achievement-oriented and were encouraged to be throughout your life, and why you see the rest of the world in the way that you do. You'll probably see how media nearly always misrepresents unfamiliar faces and places, and you'll begin to awaken to a realization of the value of human interaction with people dramatically different than yourself. You'll learn how to live differently, instead of simply finding reinforcement in the continuation of the habits and customs that are already natural to you.

The honeymoon period is over for me here, and with it, I've tried to leave behind most of my desire to experience spectacle (a tourist attitude). Instead, I'm now looking to invest my time and energy into people and opportunities that offer a valuable, longer-term payoff. Last week, I attended the student fair and joined 11 clubs, including the American Cultural Club, for which I'm now the unofficial "Officer of Cultural Coordination." I've befriended the entire third floor of the CAAD (architecture, art, and design) building – as a finance student who has no classes there. I've already mentioned the track and field team, of course. And somehow, I'm walking around with a henna tattoo of my name in Armenian on my right forearm. This is AUS; anything is possible.

Throughout it all, I strive to remain thankful for all these opportunities that are coming alive for me. Not every day is uniquely exciting. After all, I'm still a student; I still study. Yet a sense of purposefulness, of manifest destiny, exists here, permeating the very atmosphere and air I breathe. And I am addicted to it.

To borrow from Aristotle in closing: challenges are essential for human flourishing. Here, I embrace each one as it comes.

Yours until the end – Jon


Monday, February 10, 2014

A Treatise on Travel (and other things)

Tonight is alive with countless smells, neon lights, masses of people. Take a deep breath, let the full outdoor air rush into the space between your ribs.

You shouldn’t take a camera where I am going.

Do you know what an abaya shop looks like? Have you ever seen a mannequin covered from head to toe, with even the niqāb shrouding all but her opaque, listless plastic eyes? Can you imagine how the men who work the store look at you, an American male wearing Nikes and shorts, as you walk into this establishment with your friends? In this position, the blood floods every conscious appendage in your body as you take the brunt of this foreign environment full flush in the face.

What picture have I conjured up in your head? Perhaps one of fear, maybe even a shiver of horror at the discriminations to which I undoubtedly bore witness? Would you believe me if I told you that the experience is beautiful, if I described the kindness we meet at each turn? The sounds of bartering, garment trading, and melodic Gulf Arabic spills out of the souk shops into the warm, vibrant air, and, denied for what we seek, yet undaunted, we move onwards.

We are in desperate search of spandex fabric, which we will find, insha’Allah...

We scoured the Heart of Sharjah that night for the elusive stretchy material, needed for the design models the architectural students I was accompanying were building. We wandered through nearly fifty streetside shops, two shawarmas cut from the meat tornado in front of us with mango nectar to wash the meal down, and nearly a thousand grinning teeth telling us the same thing– No, no, we don't have that, but _________ does. Which way? we asked. Always down the street and to the right, so we circled tirelessly through the unquiet darkness.

You might say we failed, and if by that you mean that we didn't find what we had come to acquire, I couldn't argue with you. From the materialistic perspective, it was an exercise in futility. But if there is any one thing that I have learned from my 18 days in the UAE, it's to shut up about the momentary objective and instead experience what my surroundings have to offer. So that's what I did, and I found something ever the more valuable than a synthetic fiber. I found happiness amongst squalor, real people living real lives honestly and without the cognitive disconnect that privilege grants so many of us in the developed world. I found people who asked real questions, people who believe in things they've never been able to see. And I found a big part of my heart tugging at me to stay there, to not return to the effortlessly manicured grounds of my campus.

This experience is but one vignette within three weeks of extraordinary adventure – a synecdoche of my time here. When I think back to my expectations of this country before I left home, I am reminded that I formed hardly any. Somehow, I knew before coming that much of what I was stepping into would defy expectations.

It has. All the better for me, because I knew I would learn from it.

I never could have imagined the outpouring of support I would have waiting for me here. I don't care if I've said it before; it rings truer all the time. Today, for example, I passed by the piano in the student center, on my way to somewhere else. A friend of mine saw me, called my name, ran me down, and insisted that I come back and show his friends the music that I write. This has become the norm already, somehow. I have been playing the piano for 14 years, in the process devoting thousands of hours to practice – but I have never received this kind of support from anyone, even my own family. I am astounded daily by the unmitigated warmth of this eclectic grouping of people.

Nor could I have expected the opportunism that permeates the atmosphere here, nor the way it feels like the American West, as though anything - good or bad - is possible. Being cavalier here is sort of the norm; you don't wait for things to come to you; you make them happen. It seems a truer manifest destiny than we enjoy in America: not because the opportunities are more accessible here, but rather because the general attitude is better inclined towards self-actualizing one's life according to his or her dreams. I wish I could parlay the inspiration that settles upon me as I've listened to students, cab drivers, and all other walks of life tell about who they are becoming. It is once again romanticizing the world for me.

However, I should also denote that the case for realism is not absent here. If you wanted, I could give you a harsher reality about unmet expectations: for instance, how something in the nature of the student-professor relationship here makes for some of the most foreign classroom dynamics you can imagine. I could describe my shock when a girl candidly defended child labor to my operations management professor yesterday morning, straight-faced and earnest. I could describe for you the cognitive dissonance of many here who are unable to grasp the vastness and value of the privilege they enjoy; I'm in four classes with third-year business students, and I am one of only five students total who has held any sort of legitimate employment. Wealth has its drawbacks, too, not least of all on your world perspective towards poverty and hard work; some students here came from high schools where instructors accepted pay for passing grades. I could inform you that the dorms don't look any less like prisons or mental hospitals than when I first arrived, and I doubt that I'll find any better way to handle them than by avoiding them during the daylight hours. Most haunting of all, I could relay the sinking feeling I get in the pit of my guiltily full stomach when I pass by the janitorial and groudskeeping staff, who never say a word but do occasionally make incredible eye contact. They are migrant workers subsisting on below-legal-minimum wages and dangling on the precarious brink of either starvation or work visa revocation. These are not my expectations for basic standards of the way things should be, things I often take for granted in America.

These issues are real, and I'm not trying to sweep them under the rug to sell you a fake travel guide. You are going to see things you don't like when you go somewhere new, after the honeymoon fades and you wake up from that filmy dream of wanderlust. It is truly difficult for me to reconcile the problems I see with the wonder I feel about this place. But that's everywhere. Here is still incredible. You can't find people like this anywhere else in the world.

Meet the bakers, calligraphers, and camel race bookies of the United Arab Emirates. Their stories are better than yours, I promise. I've talked with them enough to know. The things they teach me about kindness, about respect for other cultures, about reserving judgment for a citizen of the country that has waged so much war in their world... it convicts me to live with a stronger connection to the ideals I espouse. They are industrious, charismatic, and – above all else – loving. The lessons they teach me are priceless lessons, ones I want to pass on to every person that I know. But I know that it's just not as powerful second-hand, so I recommend something else to you instead:

Travel. Please, please, please travel.

Since I matriculated two-and-a-half years ago, I have witnessed first-hand how college is a great opportunity for young people to transform themselves in incredible ways. I have watched friends rise and fall not unlike ancient Rome or Carthage; while hyperbole, it really is astounding the amount of change one can undergo in such a short time. I have not been exempt from this syndrome, having watched my dreams, desires, aspirations, knowledge, and applied wisdom expand, bend, and occasionally snap. But this travel experience, this parachute into the 100% unfamiliar, has been a whole other animal entirely.

And I have come to this basic conclusion. If you want a shift in your knowledge or the way you consider the world around you, I suggest you do yourself the following favors. Read. Study. Take classes, even re-enroll at university if you feel that you must. Talk to people who are different than you. Take chances and embrace opportunities that carry the potential to expand the way you are living.

But if you are looking for something more, a true and insubstitutable impetus for real change in your lifestyle... if you are looking for a irreversible shift in the way you live – affecting more than just your daily habits and affectations – I beg you to travel. The longer and the more unfamiliar, the better. Travel alone, if possible. Wear a confident smile, but talk only enough to get the person across the table from you kickstarted. Ask probing questions and apologize if you offend anyone (small hint, though: with questions, it's nearly impossible to do so). Don't answer quickly when the questions are turned back on you. Take an opportunity to change in that very moment where your thoughts become actionable. Stop letting convenience, custom, and habit do your thinking for you. And if you can even manage half of this, you will accomplish far more than you would have thought possible beforehand. 

Here is just a sampling of the results of saying yes to the newness available to me in this place:
Desert camping; highly recommended.

Desert sunrises: see above caption.
When you put thirty guys together in the desert and add campfire and steel wool, this is what you get.
Camel racing. This is indeed a real thing. It's free, if you're ever in the neighborhood and want to drop by.
This makes driving look peaceful, but I'm lucky to be alive after a few cab rides.
The best moments have not been captured on camera, as you might be able to imagine. Some have been auditory and can be found here on my personal blog's music page. I've written nine new songs since arriving; it's been one of the most creatively productive periods of my life. I would love for you to share in these sounds in which I've been investing my expressive emotion. Similarly, none of the scintillating conversations can be captured by any other medium than writing about it ex post. You win some, you lose some when it comes to preserving these memories.

There is a wonderful published work called Riding the Waves of Culture by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden Turner, which delivers an idea I find very applicable for closing this mammoth entry (and I do apologize if you've gotten this far and I've wasted your time). We often hear the following aphorism repeated, especially when it comes to travel: "when in Rome, do as the Romans." This is certainly a good practice, but there's a better way to do it yet. Instead of simply imitating, when in Rome, a person should understand the behavior of the Romans and in the process become a more complete version of himself. This perfectly summarizes a massive concept I've been struggling to define since I got here. Studying abroad is not simply about conforming to a new way of thinking, a new set of customs, and a new cultural identity. It's about bringing your own background to the table as well, considering the new elements of what you are experiencing in a new environment, and choosing the type of life that you are now going to live moving forwards into the future. This is the truest value of a travel experience. You are given the chance to combine strengths, not to select one over the other.

I have watched pieces of my life that I thought were dead come back to life here. I am once again outgoing, excited about academia, and ready to embrace opportunism with a renewed vigor. I feel infinitely younger and yet older at the same time. Dormant things are reawakening, and I am growing exponentially wiser in this season of life. In this way, I am not changing from who I was into someone else, but rather becoming more me than I was before. These things were always inside of me, but I cannot underscore enough the catalyzing role this Sharjah experience has played in the process. My hope now is that I can return to America in four months, having retained and further expanded this treasure of lifestyle learning to even greater heights. 

Wondering what's next for me now? So am I! So stick around, and we'll keep rolling along on this journey together.

Until next time – Jon

At the Atlantis resort, atop the reclaimed Palm Island in Dubai.