Super Stress (Grades, or ‘Why Did I Get a C?’)

So, finals are right around the corner, and I just completed the second round of midterms, so here comes the obligatory post about academics, with a much more optimistic final paragraph… basically, AUS is tough. Most exchange students here get much lower grades than they did back home, and most of their grades transfer back as Pass/Fail, so they don’t have to worry too much about that. I, however, am transferring my grades back as actual letter grades…

To anyone thinking about coming here on the Pass/Fail system, I strongly encourage them to go for it. But if you’re on the letter grade system, you might want to double-think it, or at least take fewer courses. I had a 4.0 before coming to AUS, and am writing this post after getting a C on an exam I studied for for a week, so my viewpoint is slightly biased, but one thing I appreciate is receiving realistic advice. There are only about four weeks left in the semester, but these four weeks count for about 50% of the grades. To add to it, about 70-80% of the grades in every course are exams, and there are usually only three a semester. So 80% of your grade depends on three hours of test-taking.

But, a huge plus is that there are less students, so faculty members have the ability to focus more energy on each student. Although my grades have suffered here, the mentoring I’ve received has more than made up for it. The economics faculty here has been extremely encouraging, and professors have offered to write letters of recommendation to help me get into grad school. I came to AUS not really having any idea what I wanted to do with my life after graduation. This year has been a huge self-discovery process, and I was able to take a step back to see what I like… and I feel more in touch with what I want, and better able to choose the next steps that I will be happiest with.

Karak

So there’s this really delicious drink called karak. Pretty much everyone here is addicted to it. Including myself. Because it’s awesome. And usually half liquid, half sugar. Sugar is the main reason behind the addiction, of course.

Anyways, I’ve spent an entire day trying different recipes, all of which have failed to varying degrees. I am now convinced that stores that sell this drink actually mix a tablespoon of magic into their drink instead of condensed milk.

The drink itself is basically some mixture of black tea, sugar, and milk. It is a pretty popular type of tea, with the best karak coming in small styrofoam cups at drive-up stores. By drive-up, I mean stores where customers drive up to the front door, honk until a waiter comes out, and can order food without ever leaving their cars. It’s the Arab version of drive-thrus.

Electricity

Growing up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, I have fond memories of the electricity occasionally getting cut. This was always followed by a drive to the local gas station to pick up bags of ice to put in the refrigerator so that our food didn’t get spoiled, along with worries that the electric well wouldn’t supply enough water for the horses. At college, not having electricity for a day is something most of my classmates had never experienced.

At AUS, sometimes the electricity decides it no longer wants to operate. This usually only happens for about an hour at a time. Sometimes it has gone out at night, and although I didn’t notice it, the next day classmates would say they were scared. Since, you know, mankind has not evolved to cope with lack of electricity.

Anyways, this was one of the few instances that make me remember I’m technically in a developing country. Of course it’s never gotten in the way of anything and is always quickly restored… but it has gone out at least five times during my eight-month stay.

My Family Chose My Major

Upon interrogation, most students here seem to choose their major because their family suggested it. On the one hand, this is great because there is an active family support system in this society. Youth are able to go to their family for advice on major life decisions, and aren’t expected to make such huge choices alone. Compare this to the US, where fresh high school graduates often look at the majors offered by universities and are more lost than before.

On the other hand, it’s not really youth asking parents’ advice … rather, doing something pre-approved by parents is virtually the only option. Plus, parents are the ones paying for the education, so they want to make sure it’s a wise investment.

Not surprisingly, most parents are not career-decision experts, but they do send their children to study the usual reliable subjects: engineering, accounting, and finance to name a few. In the Arab World, engineers and doctors are highly respected, to the point that, as one of my friends said, “if you’re not a doctor or an engineer, then you’re nothing”.

Here, more students are interested in getting a graduate degree than my classmates in the states, and a college education is extremely desirable. In fact, for many students it’s the only possibility. A university education is required to get a good job, plus it reinforces social class. As one friend put it, everyone here goes to college, “unless they already know they’re not going to do anything with their lives”.

Camel Races

I visited a camel race with other exchange students. We were very excited and eager to enjoy our first ever camel race! And when we got there… we couldn’t see any camels. It wasn’t the most exciting event ever, and the track was so massive that we only saw the camels a couple of times. When they finally completed their first lap, they were followed by an entourage of vehicles. Apparently the owners of the camels were keeping pace with their animals, and remotely controlled the mechanical jockey on their camel’s back. Yes, each camel had a small machine strapped onto it, with the sole purpose of tapping it with a riding crop. These mechanical jockeys replaced real jockeys, to make sure no human jockeys were abused, such as by using children or starving the jockey. I heard this was sometimes done to make sure the camel faster by lightening the load it had to run with.

Censored Internet

So I knew there would be censorship here, but I didn’t know what censorship actually looked like. Honestly, I don’t see it impacting my daily life much. Sexual scenes are cut out of movies, meaning Catching Fire had a bit cut out of it even though there is not a single sex scene in that film. The part I’m referring to is in the elevator at the beginning, where the woman removes part of her uniform while flirting with Peta.

Photos of lingerie models at Victoria’s Secret are censored so that the poster in the storefront is essentially a skin-colored blob wearing lingerie. There’s some political censorship, but I don’t have the credentials to discuss that. It should be noted, however, that almost every person I have met has a favorable opinion of the Emirati government.

But of course, the Internet has not been unaffected. Some websites I visited in the US are blocked, and most of them were time-wasters with little educational content, so in a way it’s a blessing that they’re gone. Other students are more disappointed though, since services like Netflix and Pandora are not available here. A way other students have gotten around this is through a VPN connection. NAU, my home university, offers a VPN so that traveling students can access resources limited to the on-campus network. I suggest setting up a VPN before traveling abroad if you want to use services like Netflix globally, since many sites are limited to usage inside of the US. Click here for more information on NAU’s VPN.

The Animal Souq

I recently got lost in Sharjah and wound up at an animal souq. At the bottom of this post are pictures from the souq, and you can hover over a picture for its description. Or, you can even click on the images for larger pictures, and move through them that way.

It was an exciting experience, and I even got to hold a falcon! The part of the souq I was in was a long building with a high roof. There was a walkway down the middle, and on both sides were stores full of animals. Almost every sort of animal was there, including fish, ferrets, chickens, falcons, cats, and dogs.

WWOOFing

Some friends recently left on an exchange to a pretty unique destination. They went to volunteer on an organic farm in Nepal. They said it was a great yet difficult experience. The point of WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms-ing, if I’m using that correctly) is to learn about organic farming as well as the lifestyle associated with farming/poverty. Most of the WWOOF hosts are rather poor while most WWOOFers come from relatively rich countries. So, it’s a chance to grow as a person by experiencing a less privileged lifestyle. Volunteers pay only a minimal fee to participate, around $50 USD or so, plus their own travel costs. In exchange for their day of farm work, WWOOFers receive a room and food. Plus, there are hosts in so many different countries.

I don’t know much about it, so here’s the website if you want more information: http://wwoof.net/

It seems like a great program if you want to get intense personal development from study abroad, but not necessarily language or cultural exchange. My friend said that he feels like a better person after spending just two weeks on the farm.

Fall 2013 in Review (Thank God for Curves)

New Year's fireworks display over Palm Jumeirah in the Arabian Gulf.

New Year’s fireworks display over Palm Jumeirah in the Arabian Gulf.

Last semester. Fall 2013.

Wow.

Wow.

Wow.

Basically, lots of wow’s.

I don’t remember ever being so stressed out… but also feeling like it was all worth it. It was the most academically and personally challenging semester I have had. Being in a tough situation is a great experience, because you get to see what you’re made of and how you handle pressure. And if you’ll crack. Or if you’ll worry too much and freak out. I didn’t crack, but I did worry and freak out.

I was taking 15 credit hours at my host university and 6 credit hours of online classes back home. I ended up dropping a class at my home university, and getting the first two B’s of my college career. I had juggled 24 credit hours and a job in the past and gotten straight A’s, so to be so challenged by a much smaller workload was a humbling experience. I had to make some decisions about priorities, and choose what was more important: straight A’s or social opportunities? Even if ‘straight A’s’ is replaced with ‘good grades’ in that last question, it was hard to find a balance since both are pretty important. I mean, I aspire to live in something nicer than a box someday, but having friends is also a rather desirable outcome.

During one exam, I put down my pencil, covered my face with my hands, and wondered how I would tell my mom I failed a class. I even began planning what paperwork I would fill out to retake the class back home so I could graduate. But the hardest part was when I was convinced for about a week that I would lose all of my scholarships. If my semester GPA dropped below a 3.0, I was going to lose over $13,500 in scholarships…

Thank God for curves. Academic ones, of course. Although many people also enjoy the physical ones.

When final grades came in, I got four A’s and two B’s. So I kept all of my scholarships. Once again, thank God for curves.

The semester ended in mid-January, so it felt like this was all drawn out for too way long. But as I said, it was so worth it. It was great to have the pressure of taking hard classes at the best university in the region with brilliant professors, all while adjusting to a different culture… and to actually succeed! (even if I had to make a new definition for success!) A while ago I heard an interview with the Tiger Mom, the woman who wrote Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (click here for the Wikipedia article). My favorite point was that children should feel self-confident after having accomplished something. Sort of that parents should help children accomplish something that the child can be proud of, and use this as a source of self-esteem. This is instead of making children feel confident before accomplishing something, because this sort of self-esteem is more fragile. My point is, I feel much more confident in my own abilities after working my butt off and having it all work out in the end. I proved to myself that I can do it!

Of course, the most rewarding part of the experience is the hardest one to put into words, it’s the people I’ve met. Before arrival, I was worried to death that I wouldn’t make any local friends, but I was quickly proven wrong. I’m grateful that this is how my exchange turned out, since I saw other exchange students leaving the country having made few local friends… however, I don’t think that was their goal in the first place.

There’s something very special about my relationship to this country. I say my relationship, because not everyone will feel the same way. I feel at home here. I could be caught up in the magic of a study abroad, but I love the local culture and mindset because they’re very relaxing and less stressful. For example, I was speaking to a Korean exchange student who said she prefers it here because it’s less competitive.

So all in all, it’s been a great experience. I hope this post doesn’t scare anyone off from study abroad at this university, because they can choose a program that is suited to their needs. It’s possible to study abroad and have your credits transfer as Pass/Fail, for example.

In the end, an exchange is what you make of it, and being abroad will teach you a lot about who you are and what you want.

Henna

The henna paste before it dried.

The henna paste before it dried.

Henna is like a temporary tattoo that some women – and men – in this region wear for various reasons. Uses range from weddings to everyday decoration, and the designs stay for several days. I usually see it on Emirati girls and the dorm supervisors, but it’s even used as a hair dye. It’s basically a paste that is applied to the skin, left to dry, and leaves the skin temporarily dyed a reddish brown color.

I recently tried henna for the first time. Two women representing a salon came to university for a cultural celebration, and had a stand where they offered to decorate one hand in henna for just $2.70 (10 AED). I had never seen henna artists before, and was surprised at how they were able to create art in just a few strokes. They didn’t even use a reference picture, and their only tool was a little bag with a hole in it.

A day after the application.

A day after the application.

Although some people are allergic to henna, I didn’t experience negative side effects. The henna artist told me to wash it off after 10 minutes, but my more experienced friends instructed me to wait until it started looking like mold… which happened after about an hour. It turned green and started flaking off, but left the reddish brown color behind.

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