Study abroad experience: Language immersion in Morocco
UCLA sophmore Seena Fakhimalizad (middle) at the Qalam wa Lawh graduation ceremony with two introductory Arabic teachers (Youusef, left, and Nancy).

Study abroad experience: Language immersion in Morocco

The summer before he entered UCLA, Seena Fakhimalizad participated in a six-week intensive Arabic program in Morocco that cemented his plans for an international career.

This article is part of a series published for International Education Week (Nov. 13-16, 2018) that illustrates the educational and career benefits of international experience — whether travel study, study abroad or international internships — among UCLA students and alumni.

Student: Seena Fakhimalizad, UCLA 2021
Major/ Minor: Economics major/ Global Studies minor
Study Abroad Program: National Security Language Initiative for Youth Program, Rabat, Morocco: June–August 2017


In summer 2017, I had the privilege of attending a truly invaluable study abroad program in Rabat, Morocco: the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y). NSLI-Y originated in 2006 as an initiative to promote critical language learning for American youth and foster a new generation of international diplomats.

The U.S. Department of State, in cooperation with American Councils for International Education, administers merit-based scholarships to high school students to attend both summer and academic-year immersion programs to study one of eight critical languages. I, along with 13 other American students, attended the Arabic program in Morocco, which was implemented by The International Education and Resource Network (iEARN-USA).

During this highly rigorous immersion program, I attended the Qalam wa Lawh Center for Arabic Studies. I took Modern Standard Arabic (Fusha) classes five days a week and Darija (Moroccan dialect) classes once a week. I stayed with a Moroccan host family who primarily spoke Arabic and French for the duration of the trip. For a large majority of the weekends, our group had the chance to participate in cultural excursions to Marrakech, Casablanca, Fes and the Sahara Desert, among other places.

While in Marrakech, I also participated in the 2017 iEarn International Conference and Youth Summit as a representative from the United States. The purpose of this event was to reinforce communications and develop partnerships between educators and youth locally, regionally and globally, as well as to provide an opportunity for educators and youth to develop new collaborative project ideas. Finally, I had the chance to do community service.

Motivation

Throughout my lifetime, I have studied various conflicts and experienced firsthand the detrimental impacts of strained relations and harsh disputes. Such disputes have had a particular impact on the two identities I possess as an Iranian American. Due to the dichotomy of my identity, I became passionate at a young age about bolstering my knowledge of other cultures and languages. I believe that such knowledge is the key to eliminating the hateful rhetoric and fear mongering that pervades society. And it brings us one step closer towards the mutual understanding and diplomatic dialogue that is crucial to a more interconnected world.

While I am currently fluent in Farsi and English and studied Spanish throughout high school, I wished to learn Arabic and acquire a deeper insight into Middle Eastern culture. My ultimate aspiration in life is to pursue a career in international law, where I can contribute towards uniting the citizens of the world under the umbrella of peace and diplomacy and eliminating the great sources of tension that currently exist.

Most enjoyable experiences

This trip helped me bond immensely with a group of American students who I had not met prior to the program, who came from all across the United States. I also value the Moroccan friendships that I made along the way. One of my favorite excursions was our trip to the Sahara Desert. The ability to observe the pristine desert landscape of immense sand dunes on camelback was an unforgettable experience. Additionally, I greatly enjoyed our trip to Chefchaouen, a mountain city in northwest Morocco noted for its buildings in various shades of blue.

Finally, the conference in Marrakech was an incredible learning experience as it gave me the chance to hear the narratives of students from all across the world as well as present my own story to them.


Seena with three other NSLI-Y Morocco students at the iEARN International Conference and Youth Summit in Marrakech.

Challenges

The language barrier was the most difficult aspect of the program. I had no prior knowledge of Arabic whatsoever, and a large percentage of Moroccans speak either Darija Arabic, Amazigh (Berber) or French. For six weeks, I had to communicate any wants or concerns with a large Moroccan family who spoke little to no English. I often employed a combination of gestures and body language, conveying some Farsi words that may be similar to Arabic and asking the Arabic term for any object I could find.

I had the greatest success in communicating with my host father, who spoke the most English of the entire family. However, through continued interactions with my nine-year old host brother Omar and other members of the family, I began to gradually acquire bits of the language and learn that communication need not be entirely verbal. Additionally, navigating the large city of Rabat could be a challenge at times, especially as I lived in one of the most complex parts of the area: the old Medina.

Impact

NSLI-Y students trying on turbans at a traditional market in Fes. This experience has motivated me to an even greater extent to pursue a career in international law or diplomacy in the future. Additionally, I wish to continue to study the Arabic language and broaden my knowledge of other cultures and languages. I have realized that the best way to learn more about yourself and the world around you is to push beyond your comfort zone, engage in dialogue with individuals you have never met before and immerse yourself in foreign cultures.

Advice for UCLA undergrads

If you fully wish to immerse yourself and assimilate into your surroundings when traveling or studying abroad, you must learn to be open-minded and respect cultural differences. The best thing to do before going into a foreign environment, especially for a prolonged period of time, is to research extensively the customs and culture of the place you are going to. You will not only lessen the likelihood of disrespecting someone in their environment, but you will also gain the ability to more easily adapt to an unfamiliar situation and enjoy yourself. One should not expect to go abroad and experience the familiar; it is the foreign and challenging obstacles that we experience in unfamiliar environments that truly allow us to grow as individuals.