My name is Norma Rodriguez and I am a rising Junior at Williams College majoring in Arabic Studies and concentrating in Neuroscience and Latino Studies. I grew up in East Palo Alto and I am proud to call East Palo Alto my hometown. I attended my local elementary school Cesar Chavez until I was accepted into Castilleja School for 6th grade.
This summer I was awarded the opportunity to study abroad in Madaba, Jordan to study Arabic through the Critical Language Scholarship Program. The purpose of this government-sponsored program is provide fully funded intensive language classes and cultural knowledge for college students. This is my second time studying abroad in the Middle East, after having spent time in Morocco the summer before my freshman year studying Arabic. I became interested in the Arabic language because many of my friends in high school spoke Arabic and often told me about their own Arab culture, which fascinated me.
When I first found out I had received the
scholarship I was super excited to apply the language skills I had gained in class to
real life situations. I was also very happy to learn that I had been placed in Madaba
Jordan, one out of the 5 possible sites for
Arabic learning. The other sites include
Amman, Jordan, Ibri, Oman, Meknes,
Morocco, and Tangier, Morocco. Because of the terrorist attacks and because of 911, many people might be somewhat fearful of traveling to the Middle East. However, I have never felt unsafe in any Middle-eastern country. I think the benefit of learning Arabic greatly outweighs any safety issues in Jordan.
(Norma Rodriguez holds a sign that has her name written in Arabic.)
My family members expressed fears about my traveling to Jordan, however I assured them that I would be safe because this is government sponsored program.
Furthermore, although Jordan is surrounded by instability on many of its borders, its relationship with the United States and its monarchy ensure that Jordan is peaceful and stable. Therefore I knew that I would be safe during my time studying Arabic in Jordan.
Arabic is a very hard language because most people do not actually speak Arabic, but a different dialect depending on the area they live in. Thus someone from Morocco speaks a vastly different dialect from someone in Jordan. I had never studied any dialects in college, so I was ready to learn the Jordanian dialect in order to communicate with people. Furthermore Madaba is also a unique place to study because about 30% of the population is Christian, making the social fabric of the city very different from other parts of the Middle East.
My trip to the Middle East began with a two day orientation in Washington DC, where I was finally able to meet my fellow classmates. Meeting my classmates reassured me that this experience would be engaging and fun. Each of my fellow classmates is impressive in their own right; they range from Phd students to sophomores in college. During the first day of orientation we had guest speakers such as Dr. Dan Davidson the President of American Councils for International Education and Even Ryan, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs. Both of these speakers emphasized the importance of interculturalism and awareness.
On the second day, as part of our orientation, we attended a panel that included previous CLS participants from Madaba who gave us advice and shared stories from their experience. This was very informative because I learned about a typical day during the program and how living in Jordan is like.
The next day we departed for Jordan from Dulles International Airport. However our flight was not direct, our first stop was Frankfurt, Germany where we had an eight hour layover after a nine hour flight. Some of us took advantage of this opportunity to explore Frankfurt and try Germany’s famous pretzels. After the layover we finally departed to Amman, Jordan on a four hour flight and arrived in Amman at around 2:30 AM. When we arrived in Jordan, I was ecstatic to see that all the signs were in Arabic and that I could actually understand them. I could feel the warm welcoming air of Jordan as soon as I stepped off the plane.
We spent the night in a hotel room since we arrived at a very early hour. The time difference between Madaba, Jordan and East Palo Alto is 10 hours. We all woke up in a frenzy excited to learn about our host families and roommates since our host families and roommates were not revealed to us until our on-site arrival.
Finally my host family came to pick us up and I found out that my roommate was Hanna, another student from Harvard University. We were both excited to have such a welcoming and caring family. They immediately were interested in getting to know us and asked us many questions about our family, our studies, and our interests.
My roommate and I were treated to a delicious Jordanian meal that consisted of many salads, falafel, and hummus. We went to sleep content, but very jet lagged in our new family home. My roommate and I stayed up late attempting to fall asleep partly due to jet lag and partly due to our excitement.
The next morning I was surprised to wake up to extremely warm weather even at 8 am. It was at least 85 degrees by 9 am and only continued to get warmer throughout the day. The weather in Madaba during the number stays at an average of 90 degrees, a huge adjustment from the weather in East Palo Alto.
Later that day we were treated to a Biblical excursion of the city of Madaba. The city of Madaba dates back to the Middle Bronze age and is mentioned in the bible. Furthermore it is otherwise known as “The City of Mosaics.” The city has many Byzantine and Ummayad mosaics dispersed throughout.
Famous Map of Madaba
We visited the famous Map of Madaba, which is now preserved in the Greek Orthodox Basilica of Saint George, a short walk away from our school. Most of the shops were closed because of the holy month of Ramadan, however this did not detract from the magic of Madaba. I found it amazing that I would be studying in such an ancient city with great historical and biblical importance.
Read the rest of Norma Rodriguez' story in the July - August 2016 edition of East Palo Alto Today.