Alumni Spotlight: Irene Gibson


Irene is a student at Macalester College majoring in International Studies, Political Science, and Arabic. Her studies concentrate on the Middle East, and in the future she hopes to help coordinate the cultural exchanges between Iraq and the U.S.

Why did you decide to study abroad with CET?

Irene: My original plan was actually to study abroad in Cairo, but then I had to switch last minute because of unrest. Though I was upset then, I'm glad I made the switch; during that summer I had been working with a nonprofit that facilitated cultural exchange with Iraq, and I found my Arabic to be severely lacking in working with Iraqi visitors and refugees. CET was kind enough to find an extra spot in their program for me last minute, and I was attracted to its intense Arabic language and relatively remote location, which I believed (correctly) would allow me to interact with people less used to Westerners.

My experience during the program solidified these expectations; not only was I able to move my language skill almost two proficiency levels (from low Beginning to high Intermediate) I was also enable to engage with Jordanian culture more completely than the students on other programs located in the capital.

Do you think your program changed you as a person?

Irene: Irbid definitely changed me as a person. That's undeniable. The question is, how did it change me, and quite honestly I don't think I know yet. My self-reflection and world view have altered, but how that's going to effect me as a person remains to be seen. When I go back this summer, I'm sure my perceptions will change again, which is good.

I think to be constantly evolving and learning prevents one from becoming stagnant, and CET definitely pushed me to evolve. If I had to give one piece of advice to someone studying abroad, it would be to take advantage of the failures (because there will be many failures) and let them help you understand yourself. And don't forget to take a moment to celebrate the victories.

Did you run into a language barrier? Did you ever think you knew more/less of the language?

Irene: With a language pledge, you're going to run into language barriers all the time. The more you learn, the more you realize you need to learn. Rejoicing in the little victories is a must for language learning, as well as being okay with not knowing the right word. Learning a language is frustrating, but the whole process was incredibly rewarding. The best part for me was that learning another language made me think more about what I said and how I said it: a reflection that I rarely did in English.

Whenever I hit a language barrier, it promoted my creativity because I had to think around how to say what I wanted. CET was marvelous at promoting this; if the class did not understand a vocabulary word, our teacher would describe it instead of just giving us the English equivalent. If I ever thought I was learning enough Arabic, that thought was definitely corrected within the hour, but I was always learning more.

How has this experience impacted your future?

Irene: Direct impact of the program has been to connect me with a Jordanian professor I'll be researching with this summer. I'm also working with another one of my Jordanian professors to publish a paper I wrote for his class. Academically (again) I've learned a massive amount of Arabic. Personally I have a much different outlook and worldview than my classmates upon returning from study abroad, which lends itself to more discussions and less assumptions.

I also feel a very real sense of disenchantment with governments and institutions that are often idealized or glossed over in academic discourse. Studying abroad has taught me that analyzing macro structures depends wholly upon their components.