There’s often a certain look to the typical American college student—maybe they’re sitting at a dining hall table, papers strewn about in front of an open laptop, coffee in hand. As you walk across any university campus, you’ll see thousands of these archetypes.
But there are some students, like Boston College senior Kyle Costa, MCAS ’20, who have an entirely different world of experience beyond this “stereotypical university student” profile. While most BC students were walking to Gasson for their first class, Costa was speaking Arabic with Syrian refugees. As they meandered into the dining halls, Costa was spending the night in a Bedouin camp in Jordan. As some students listened to a political science lecture about Middle Eastern conflict, Costa was approaching the Israel-Palestine border and crossing over into the West Bank.
A political science and Islamic civilization and societies major from Cincinnati, Ohio, Costa started his Arabic journey during his freshman year. He had learned the Arabic alphabet the previous summer, which inspired him to take courses in the language upon his arrival at BC. Unlike romance languages like Spanish, French, and Italian, which are often studied in high school, Costa’s Arabic class was mostly a group of beginner, non-native speakers—this made it much easier for Costa to get his footing.
After going through the elementary and intermediate levels offered at BC, Costa decided he needed more of a challenge. He applied to study the Arabic language through the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies (CAMES), a leading interdisciplinary learning center at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in Lebanon, where he spent the summer following his sophomore year.
Costa was drawn to this particular program both because of its reputation and his desire to put his Arabic skills to use—CAMES provides interdisciplinary learning in Middle Eastern studies and the Islamic world, along with Arabic language study. Here, Costa spent time further developing his language skills beyond the classroom and immersing himself in a society of Arabic speakers.
Following a successful summer in Lebanon, Costa took an Arabic seminar at BC, and then planned to spend his junior spring semester abroad in Aman, Jordan, for more Arabic language study. He chose Jordan because he wanted to maintain consistency with the dialect he had begun developing while at AUB the previous summer. The logistics, however, were far from convenient—BC itself offers a fairly small amount of abroad programs to the Middle East due to potential safety concerns, and the selective nature of majors that specifically relate to the region.
“Lebanon is considered a level three [travel safety alert] from the State Department, which means it’s more dangerous,” he said. “But a lot of that is pretty political I think, it’s a really safe country. It has a lot of issues but it’s an amazing place to be abroad.”
For Costa, this meant finding a previously unapproved external program, petitioning for the University to allow him to go, and starting his planning process months in advance (since then, Costa has added a new external program to the list of abroad destinations for BC students, should any future students want to travel to Aman to further their study of the Arabic language).
Kathleen Bailey, associate director of the Islamic civilization and societies department and Costa’s senior thesis adviser and mentor, said that she would never forget her meeting with Costa before he began his travels.
“He was so surprised when I said we have all these options, and every time I mentioned a different program, his eyes opened wider,” she said. “I think he realized he could apply for these things because he’s qualified, and he got a little bit more confident. I feel like I created a Frankenstein monster, because after that he just applied for everything.”
This past summer, Costa decided to return to Lebanon, yet again, for language study. He headed back, this time to practice his Arabic in a teaching role. Working with a non-governmental organization in a school called Al-Jusoor, Costa helped provide educational services to prepare Syrian refugee children living in Lebanon for the Lebanese school systems.
Though an overwhelmingly interesting volunteer opportunity, Costa noted the difficulties of witnessing aspects of the refugee crisis first-hand.
“We’re not using emergency education strategies in these schools anymore,” he said. “It’s literally crisis strategies, because there are so many kids who don’t have access to education anymore, and they don’t have those resources available to them.”
With this humanitarian crisis in mind, Costa was required to take on a strict instructor-style position while working at Al-Jusoor. Having participated in BC’s Appalachia Volunteers program freshman and sophomore year—which emphasized emotional connection to the community at hand—this mindset required a bit of a mental switch. He explained that, although meaningful relationships can always occur as an instructor, the goal was to reserve his feelings as much as possible to provide a sense of stability for his students.
“You try and keep it as professional as you can, because it is only a three- or four-week program, so you try to keep the attachment at a minimum,” Costa said. “Just because you don’t want these kids to feel like, ‘This person is coming into my life,’ and then you leave.”
Having immersed himself in two different Middle Eastern nations, Costa has unavoidably acquainted himself with some of the region’s biggest challenges. Whether that be language and dialect changes between each nation or variations in cultural traditions, there is much to be said about the outside perspective of the Middle East and the refugee crisis. In many cases, these nations are largely generalized and lumped together as sharing one overarching culture and painted as one violent zone of conflict, he said.
“My experiences in both countries were really different, and I think that’s another stereotype that people have, is that they lump all the countries in the Middle East together, and assume they’re all kind of the same,” he said. “But they’re so different. So many different ethnic and religious groups.”
From Costa’s experience, Lebanon seemed to be comparatively more culturally liberal and Jordan more culturally conservative, even in small details like alcohol consumption and pricing. In addition to these social differences, Costa found a new social world attending school with a primarily Muslim campus on the other side of the world at the University of Jordan.
“I guess now it’s pretty common for men and women to kind of hang out together on [University of Jordan’s] campus, but before the young men would stand over here,” he said, gesturing to his left side, “and the women would stand over here.”
Even linguistically, Jordan and Lebanon differ in terms of phrases and accents as well. Although both’s dialects fall under the Levantine Arabic—the main dialect of Arabic spoken near the Levantine Sea’s eastern coast, which includes regions of Jordan and Lebanon—it was still difficult to adjust initially.
While BC teaches written, formal Arabic, native speakers rely on colloquial speech to communicate. Costa affirms that the formal Arabic taught at BC is still hugely important, as prospective Arabic speakers do still need to learn to read, but these forms are not generally used in verbal conversation.
In spite of all these differences, internal or external, Costa fondly recollects that travel has helped him understand cultural differences. His journeys abroad have also helped him realize that, regardless of these cultural divides, people have a shared humanity that makes them more or less no different than the people he knows from home.
“I think that the more you travel the more you realize that people everywhere are pretty much the same,” Costa said. “Outside of, you know, basic cultural differences, most people care about family, people care about food, especially in Middle Eastern culture.”
Not only does Costa see faces of humanity where outsiders might see political unrest, but he also finds trust where others might find suspicion. In fact, Costa felt that developing self-reliance, particularly in an area of the world that so many people view with mistrust, was one of the most influential aspects of time abroad.
“I feel like a big thing that I took away from my abroad experience, was realizing that I can travel from Jordan to Israel, and maybe no one along the way will speak English, but I can make it happen and I can follow through the steps and I can do what I want to do.”
Despite how dangerous this type of travel might seem, he finds that trust in others is the biggest factor. Particularly from the perspective of students who have traveled somewhere assuredly safe and with a large group of people, or who have never traveled at all, the idea of relying on others and forgoing the advantage of language familiarity is daunting.
“So much of that is just trusting people too,” Costa said. “No matter where you go, whether that’s England, France, or wherever, having faith in the people around you is huge. You can’t travel and not rely on the people around you.”