Williams International

Rachel Hagler '13 in Tunisia

Rachel Hagler ’13 spent the spring of 2012 at the School for International Training program near Tunis, Tunisia.  The Riverhead, New York, native is a Political Science and Arabic major.

Why did you decide to study abroad in Tunisia?

I chose Tunisia because this tiny, perhaps under-loved country is in my mind the coalescence of everything I love about studying Arabic language and culture.  Situated on the Mediterranean at the seat of Phoenician, Berber, Moorish, and later French colonial culture, being in Tunisia meant I could visit Roman and Punic ruins, study Arabic and French, and view some of the earliest Muslim and Jewish sites in continental Africa.  The prospect of being able to travel in the Sahara pretty much sold me!  Although I lived in a suburb of Tunis, and therefore was at one of the northernmost points of the country, my program allowed me to travel to many other major cities in the west and south.  I had never been to Tunisia before, in fact, I had only left the country once before studying abroad—a visit to Argentina and Chile to exercise my Spanish and see Iguazu, Buenos Aires, Salta, and Santiago.

What was your biggest “culture shock” as you got used to living in Tunisia?

My biggest culture shock was actually the shift in my perception of “diversity.”  In the United States, diversity is very much a “macro” concept—we house immigrants from all over the world.  In Tunisia, diversity could mean being of Berber origin or sub-Saharan African descent or having Sicilian blood—the Tunisian iteration of diversity was more pan-Mediterranean than global, and so the differences between individuals were less readily visible.  Then I went to London after being in Tunis for several months and was re-shocked by how many very, very different cultures came together in one teeming city.

Did you stay with a host family?

I did stay with a host family, and they were a very intellectual and fairly affluent household, which meant that most of the media they consumed was in French.  I found myself watching/reading/speaking much more in French than I had anticipated, given my Arabic language goals.  Also, they were more secular than I had anticipated.  Having only host brothers was unexpected, but because of it I was able to have a lot of interesting dialogue about politics and gender.  It gave me a very interesting window into not just Tunisian life but a fundamentally different family dynamic from my own.  My home-stay was among the most important and challenging facets of my experience abroad—and quite fun as well!  My youngest host brother took me on tours of interesting places when we had free time, and oftentimes we bickered just as much as real siblings.  Because of him, I had the opportunity to go to the hot springs on the coast, participate in a Tunisian university’s model U.N. conference, and see some of the more unique and lesser-known parts of Tunis.

Did your time abroad change your initial perceptions of Tunisian culture?

Having never been to North Africa, I tried not to go into my program in Tunisia with too many preconceptions.  I had done a lot of research, but, books aside, I didn’t have a fully-fledged vision of what life there would entail.   One thing that I didn’t expect was for Tunis to be so Europeanized. It was sad in some regards that many of the folkloric aspects of Tunisian culture, such as hikayat (street puppet shows) or fez haberdasheries were diminished in presence or else installed in museums because of the influences of “modernity.”  I was expecting things to feel a little more frozen in time, but instead everything was very progressive—I arrived on the heels of a revolution, after all.

Why do you think it’s important for Williams students to study abroad?

My study abroad experience was invaluable—but I knew from the moment I began my college search that going abroad was among my priorities. A semester abroad was the perfect amount of time away.  Our time at Williams is so limited and the education at Williams is so stellar that those two factors themselves constitute a case for the abroad experience not being for everyone.  I believe strongly that everyone should travel, but that doesn’t necessitate a semester- or year-long experience.  For many, I would imagine, winter study or a summer vacation is ideal. I  think an essential experience is to travel solo at least once, even within the U.S.  You learn more about yourself that way.

Do you think that Williams does a good job helping students incorporate their time abroad meaningfully into their college career? Or should there be more opportunities for students to share their study abroad experiences?

Sure!  I love just talking about my adventures, but it would be fruitful to see our research or our interpretations anthologized in some way.  Personally, when I was abroad, I maintained a blog and kept a journal.

What was your favorite Tunisian food?

My two favorite foods when I was in Tunisia were ‘ojja and makroud.  ‘Ojja is basically Tunisian chakchouka; it contains eggs poached in pepper and tomato stew and is often seasoned with merguez, a spicy lamb sausage native to Tunisia.  Makroud is best known as the provincial candy of Kairouan, which was my favorite southern city (the architecture was amazing!).  It’s a paste of almonds and dates rolled in sweetened semolina dough, fried, and drizzled with sugar syrup.