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.

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