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 caf├ęs 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


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