Stephanie N, a Bronx Prep senior wears her eyes rimmed in black kohl liner, but when asked if it is the influence of the two months she spent studying Arabic in Morocco this summer, she laughs. “No, this is just me,” she says.
Her interest in learning Arabic was born when she noticed that her neighborhood in the Bronx, which is primarily home to African Americans and Latinos was attracting Arabic-speaking families and businesses. Stephanie, who is interested in studying International Relations, sees the changes as an opportunity. “It’s a growing community,” she says. “I thought of it in terms of commerce and the future.”
On her own, she found Arabic classes in the city. For ten sessions, she learned as much as she could. Her BPH advisor, Isolene Roberts, told her about the National Security Language Initiative for Youth program that awards scholarships for high school students. She sent off the application, and then pushed the notification deadline out of her mind. “When I got my acceptance letter in the mail, I couldn’t believe it.”
From that moment on, the next months of her life took on a dream-like quality. She attended program orientation at Columbia University with teenagers from all around the country. She boarded a plane bound for Morocco, a country 3,687 miles away from New York. She spent her days learning Arabic at a language school and spent nights soaking in the local culture with her host family.
She also started a blog, to share the stories she didn’t want to forget. Nearly two months after returning home, Stephanie still finds it hard to find the words to describe just how awesome the experience was.
Democracy Prep: What was a typical day like for you?
Stephanie: I’d take the bus to my 8:30 class. I didn’t like the idea of taking a taxi because I wanted to be around other people and immerse myself in the culture. We studied until 1, and then had a lunch that was typical Moroccan food including food including chicken made in a traditional tagine pot.
After lunch, I would do tutoring.That was my favorite part. The tutors barely spoke English, and there was nothing better than actually practicing Arabic with them. After school, I would do something different each day like go to different shops and pottery places or do a school-sponsored activity.
I would get home around 7 and then work on more Arabic. Then around 7:40-45 the prayer would come on. Whatever TV show you were watching, it would stop, and then the prayer would come on. Then the family broke fast for Ramadan. The breakfast is at 8 p.m. and the dinner was at 3 in the morning. There were some days when I would stay up with the family. The food was amazing.
Democracy Prep: What advice would you give to a scholar who wants to do this program?
Stephanie: To make friends outside of your orientation group. The other kids stayed in groups together which means they were only speaking English. I branched out because I ended up meeting a friend in the market who had lived in Baltimore for four years. He ended up being an unofficial guide and traveling with my parents when they came to visit!
At the end of the program, we had to write letters to each other and everyone mentioned how I branched off.
DP: How do you think this trip changed your worldview?
Stephanie: Definitely. I’ve always liked the idea of traveling, but this made me want to get out there more. This was a different language, and culture that I’m not used to, so the experience taught me how to adjust and accept things I’m not comfortable with.
Academically, it showed me that everyone struggles. It showed me that I will come across adversity, and face challenges and that not everything will go my way all of the time.
Culturally, I learned so much. In the United States, we have so many misconceptions of people of Muslim faith. My goal on the plane coming back was to share my experiences and tell people don’t just go by what the newspaper says. Don’t judge people before you get a chance to interact.
Read more about Stephanie’s adventures on her blog, Cosmopolitan Child.