Madeline Van Husen '20
Finding Community and Purpose While Abroad
There’s this embarrassing, defeatist laugh when one admits, “Abroad changed me.” Yes, sometimes the phrase is overused, but what’s the point of going abroad if you aren’t changed in some respect, or if it doesn’t influence some decisions moving forward? For me, abroad gave me inspiration for the topic of my senior thesis. Last spring, I studied abroad in Amman, Jordan to learn about the Jordanian response to the various needs of refugee populations in the region. While the classes certainly laid the foundation for choosing the topic of my senior thesis, it was my home stay experience that inspired me to learn more about a particular group of refugees in Jordan.
Like most study abroad programs in Jordan, students in mine stayed with host families. I remember wishing that I would be staying with an older couple who lived in a quiet house that would be filled with the laughter of grandchildren on the weekends. I imagined sipping tea and watching bad television with my host mom and talking about politics with my host dad who would remind me of my grandpa. Instead, I was placed with a young couple who had two children a boy and a girl. While my host brother was like any other rambunctious six-year-old boy, my host sister “Talia” (I’ve changed her name for this essay) had a severe genetic disorder called Angelman syndrome.
Since I grew up around students with differing abilities and continue to work with teenagers with high cognitive needs, I was grateful to have the opportunity to live with someone with high needs in a different cultural setting. While at first I was more like an anthropologist observing the differences in the treatment of people with differing abilities, I soon learned that it was more important for me to be with Talia than to observe her life as an outsider. Since she did not communicate with words, we never sang along to pop music like my other friends experienced with their host sisters; she never even said my name or called me “Auntie” like my host brother. Nevertheless, I knew that there was a special bond between us. Towards the end of my stay, we were at the grandmother’s home and as Talia was sitting on my lap, I heard the grandmother say “tahubuha” which means “she loves her.” I didn’t know which of us the grandmother was saying loved the other, but I knew it was correct either way.
Studying the refugee crisis in Jordan and living with Talia inspired me to write about the experiences of child refugees with differing abilities for my thesis. While most of the organizations I visited in Jordan had some form of “special education” program, the details on the implementation of these programs were vague. Additionally, the expressions on people’s faces when we took Talia out in public made me want to learn more about the perceptions of people with differing abilities in the Middle East. The interdisciplinary nature of the International Studies Program allowed me to pursue the topic in creative ways, and I am so grateful for the above-and-beyond support of professors who have served as advisors in this process. Writing a senior thesis has taught me many useful skills for future research, such as applying for a grant, submitting an IRB [Institutional Review Board] Proposal, writing interview questions, and conducting interviews.
As someone who is very much a homebody and does not do well with transition, I never anticipated finding a home in Jordan, but seven months after leaving my study abroad program, I found myself back on the orange couch in my host family’s living room, sitting next to Talia over winter break. With help from the Omar A. Aggad Travel and Research Fellowship, I was able to travel to Amman to conduct interviews with staff members of various organizations and ask them about their work with people with differing abilities.
Going abroad probably won’t change your day-to-day life when you return, but sometimes it will inspire you to say "yes" to something that will give you an unexpected community of friends and family on the other side of the world. In college we worry most about the big decisions like what career to pursue after graduation, but often it’s the small decisions in our lives that have the most significance.
Madeline Van Husen '20