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News at Mason

Mason Students Make History with Journey to Jordan

February 17, 2012

By Erin Cushing

Students Katherine Shamsie, Jennifer Wham and Hill Hamrick climb over ancient ruins in Jerash, Jordan. Photo courtesy of David Noyes

For most students, winter break is a time to refresh and recharge after the stress of the fall semester. But for 10 Mason students, winter break provided truly unique learning opportunities and challenged the way they see the world.

For the first time, Mason’s Center for Global Education offered a study abroad excursion to Jordan, and the students traveled there for a two-week “immersion trip.”

The experience was meant as a way for students to study and use Arabic while simultaneously learning about the cultural, social and political environments of the country. This was accomplished through a combination of classroom instruction, independent study and trips to important cultural sites, including the Jordanian Parliament, which was a last-minute inclusion and a highlight of the visit, according to the participants.

“This trip was very special; no other school runs a program quite like this,” says Ghassan Husseinali, assistant professor of Arabic in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages who led the group. The program was so unique that it also attracted participants from Ohio University, Williams College, Hunter College and the University of Connecticut.

The students split their time between classroom instruction at the University of Jordan in Amman, several daylong excursions throughout the country and independent trips into the city of Amman to explore.

“My experience in the Middle East was the complete polar opposite of how I was told it would be and how I expected it to be,” says David Noyes, an economics major who participated in the trip.

“The entire university and city of Amman opened up to greet us,” he says. “Everybody we met was very eager and willing to help us learn Arabic and about Jordanian culture.”

The program was based upon the concept of “language socialization,” Husseinali explains. Students spent time in the classroom learning general Arabic as well as the Jordanian dialect. Then they were given specific tasks to carry out in public spaces to practice their speaking and comprehension.

Students David Noyes and Shamsie in Petra, a world heritage site. Photo courtesy of David Noyes

For example, Husseinali would instruct the students to find a certain vendor in the Amman market, ask about the price of a certain item, and then complete the transaction. Students reported on their experiences at their next class meeting and wrote a report about the exercise.

“It was important to have the students use what they were learning,” explains Husseinali. “This way, they aren’t just learning standard, textbook Arabic, but have some experience with a specific dialect and mode of speaking the language. The students seemed to be successful in the exercises. They really liked the experience,” continues Husseinali.

Aside from the self-governed trips into Amman, the students also participated in more organized tours of Jordan. The group ventured to the Dead Sea, swimming in the “Salt Sea” and visiting an early Christian monastery. Also on the agenda was the city of Petra to see The Treasury, a UNESCO world heritage site. But perhaps the most exciting event of the trip was a visit to the Jordanian Parliament.

The group met with Reem Badran, the first woman to be elected to a seat in Jordan’s Lower House of Parliament. She organized a tour of the Parliamentary building, including the Dome where the governing body actually meets. She then spent two more hours with the students, talking with them about the Jordanian political system, culture and current events and answering their questions.

“It was the best part of the trip,” says Husseinali.

Husseinali considered the trip a great success for several reasons. Along with the students’ improvements in their Arabic skills, they learned much about the country itself and were often surprised with what they saw and experienced.

“Most of the students were amazed to see what a modern country Jordan is,” explains Husseinali. “People would be surprised to see how contemporary it is.”

The participants received three credits in Arabic for their work, and the ties between Mason and the University of Jordan were strengthened. Husseinali is considering creating a similar social immersion program in Palestine and organizing a second journey into Jordan.

“We’ve made some strong connections here with this trip. Hopefully, next year we’ll be able to meet the King of Jordan!” he says.

For more information on study abroad, see the Center for Global Education website.