Alyssa Brown played up her limited funds to score a tunic in Rabat. Andrew Broedel shared an American cigarette to seal a deal on a turban in the Sahara.
The Middle Eastern studies minors – among 15 UMW students on a summer trip to Morocco – learned to barter for treasures in the Islamic country. But Brown and Broedel, raised post-9/11 with suspicion swirling around anything Muslim, gained something even more valuable from the travel-abroad experience – perspective.
“I realized as soon as we got there that Moroccans are so friendly that it’s kind of uncomfortable at first,” said Broedel, who doesn’t smoke but bought the cigarettes at the airport on a hunch about haggling. “Right off the bat they are the sweetest people on Earth.”
About 300 UMW students study in foreign countries each year. Even more may get to, thanks to a university effort, in conjunction with the Institute of International Education, to double the number of Americans who study abroad by the end of the decade.
For Brown, a senior who wants to work with non-governmental organizations, and Broedel, who graduated in May and hopes to land a museum position, the Morocco trip was a life- and, hopefully, career-building affair.
“It provided students with an important opportunity to see and experience a very different set of cultures,” said Associate Professor of Geography Farhang Rouhani, who led the late-June excursion.
In tandem, he helped form Urban Field Studies in Morocco. The course paired students’ journal entries from the trip with readings and research about the culture, economics and politics of the North African country.
They’d learned about the sweltering heat of the Sahara Desert and the diverse topography of the Atlas Mountains. They’d read of the bustling Medina of Marrakesh, the region’s largest market square, and heard of the monkey handlers and snake charmers who work its winding alleyways.
But classes and textbooks could take them only so far.
“It was definitely a learning experience,” said Brown, who saw sheep heads piled high on butcher-shop counters and chickens beheaded in the street. “It was just so different.”
As a woman, she was warned to expect unfair treatment in the nation, which blends Arab, Berber, African and European influences. But that didn’t happen, Brown said.
“I would say I get more harassment here in the U.S. than I ever got in Morocco.”
As they traveled the country – visiting Casablanca, Meknes, Tangier, Fes and other sites – they found beauty. The tiered Ouzoud waterfalls in Azilal. The shifting hues of blue in Chefchaouen. The syrupy taste of Moroccan mint tea.
The food was “amazing,” said Broedel, whose favorite was harira, a stew made of vegetables, lentils and chickpeas and associated with Ramadan. The group dined on the hearty dish on the first day of the Islamic holy month, which fell on their last day in Morocco.
For Brown and Broedel, who both study Arabic, it was a fitting finale to the two-week adventure that taught them so much.
“I have an understanding of the people, of the culture, of the language,” Broedel said. “I think it’s the perfect way to tie together everything you’ve learned in class.”