By Stephanie Corrigan
My initial experience with the Middle East is defined by my time spent as an international exchange student in Ankara, Turkey; a time when I encountered new, distinctive experiences that have molded me into the person I am today. This story begins with my experience participating in the National Security Language Initiative for Youth, a fully-funded U.S. State Department exchange program. I lived with a loving host family, took intensive language courses, and used my newly acquired cultural awareness to assist with advancing U.S. relations abroad.
I was met with various challenges, many coming in the form of cultural misunderstandings. I was now the outsider in a foreign land, questioned by locals about my background and judged by my appearance and dress. My beliefs were challenged everyday, as Turks would ask me about American culture, politics, and values. I dedicated my summer to comprehending Turkish culture, while sharing bits and pieces of my experiences as an American. Studying abroad challenged my preconceived ideas, fostered my appreciation for diversity, and made me more understanding of different lifestyles and beliefs, especially in areas concerning familial hierarchies and relationships, unique cuisine, and a distinctive religion.
Prior to living in Turkey, the most knowledge I had of Islam was what I read in textbooks or saw on CNN. My exposure to the major world religion and its traditions took on great significance when I participated in Ramadan. The fasting ritual was incredibly beautiful to me, as my host family rose in the early hours at the sound of the ezan, or call to prayer. After being exposed to Islam and the Turkish people, I found myself more understanding of their lifestyle and beliefs. I am sympathetic to struggles of Islamophobia, as well as more impartial when analyzing media. While many Western news outlets present Muslim populations in general terms of terrorist activity, my time in Turkey proved quite the contrary. I have been fortunate to have had meaningful experiences with people who are frequently misunderstood in the non-Muslim world.
Studying abroad at such an early age also shaped my development and career goals, positively impacting every aspect of my culture and beliefs – and about Islam in particular. It ignited a desire to further explore and understand the region of the Middle East and North Africa. This compulsion led me to spearheading a family vacation to Egypt in December 2014, which ultimately altered my parents’ views of the region for the better. My family and I regard our experiences in Egypt as some of the best memories we possess, with the people we met being a significant influential factor. Both trips taught me to reflect on my culture from the perspective of another, and to this day, I consider every opposing idea as a precious opportunity to learn and grow.
Stephanie is an undergraduate senior who is currently studying Political Science, with the hopes of adding on Public Relations. She is from Orlando, Florida and loves to spend time outside, whether hiking or exploring a new city, as well as practicing her photography, writing in her travel blog, or planning her next backpacking trip abroad.