Rachel McBride (Dushanbe Spring 2018)
Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad scholarship recipient Rachel McBride discusses the importance of study abroad and why studying abroad in Dushanbe on the Eurasian Regional Language Program was such a unique experience.
Study abroad by U.S. university students has more than tripled in the last decade, with an increasing number of students studying in locations farther off the beaten path than your typical study abroad hotspots like Western Europe, China, and Australia . Studying abroad helps students develop intercultural competence, a broader understanding of other cultures and ways of life, as well as a better understanding of themselves. Although one could most certainly gain these skills in part by studying in one of the aforementioned study abroad hot spots like the United Kingdom, France, or Germany, I am here to discuss what I learned from my incredibly special experience studying in Dushanbe, Tajikistan and encourage others who may be considering a study abroad experience to forego the beautiful French Riviera or the nightlife of Berlin in favor of a more unique live abroad experience in a lesser-known locale like Dushanbe.
Not Your Typical Study Abroad Student First, I should say a bit about myself and how I ended up in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. I was not your “typical” study abroad participant in that I was not an undergraduate student while I studied abroad, nor was I majoring in a foreign language, international relations or business, or any other major one might typically associate with study abroad. Rather, I was a graduate student in a pre-professional Master’s in Education program who had worked as an English as a Second Language teacher for several years before going back to school for my graduate degree. Pre-grad school I had taught English in Seoul, South Korea and worked as a fille au pair (live-in nanny) in Marseille, France. Thus, I was lucky enough to have already visited and lived/worked in some of your more “typical” study abroad destinations and knew that I wanted something more unique in my grad school study abroad experience. In this article, I wish to explain, then, what I gained from living in such a unique environment as Dushanbe in comparison to places like Korea and France.
You’re Telling Me You Liked Living in the Middle of Nowhere Tajikistan more than Southern France? Yes and no. It is not that I necessarily had a “better” time in Dushanbe than in any other location in which I have lived, rather I felt that I grew much more as a result of my participation in the Eurasian Regional Language Program there than I have during other live abroad experiences. For one, I made language gains much quicker in Dushanbe than I did in either Korea or France, despite the fact that I lived and spoke my target language with both my French and Tajik host families in those respective locations. Because not many other people in Tajikistan speak English (Russian is the most commonly spoken world language), I was forced to use Tajik wherever I went. In France and Korea, by contrast, I could often get by with English.
Second, I learned so much more about myself, my culture, and my values in Tajikistan than I have in any other study abroad or travel experience. Because Tajik culture is different from American culture in so many ways, I was forced to reflect upon my own values and ideas about the world constantly and examine whether these were a reflection of my own American upbringing (this was often the case) or something else deeper inside me. It was also fascinating living within Russia’s sphere of influence and hearing what the average Tajik person thought about America based on what they had heard in the Russian media (most Tajiks watch Russian news programs) and then reflecting on how my own perceptions of other countries have been colored by American and other Western media sources.
Finally, this may be unpopular with technophile potential study abroad participants, but I do think there is something to be said for living in a place in which one cannot use a smartphone or laptop 24/7. While in Tajikistan, I was able to truly unplug in a way that I have not been able to in the United States and other tech-friendly countries in which I have traveled, and I think it is incredibly healthy and almost therapeutic to unplug while on a study abroad experience and look inwards to oneself or outwards to one’s host family or host community rather than online.
A Call to Study Abroad Off the Beaten Path Though I realize Dushanbe is not for everyone, I would like to take this opportunity to recommend to those considering studying abroad to look beyond Italy, Spain, or Ireland in favor of Bishkek, Baku, or Tbilisi. I guarantee you will not regret picking a study abroad location more off the beaten path, and you will learn an enormous amount about a lesser-known country/culture and yourself in the process. Your friends and family may say: “Bishkek… where is that!?” But trust me -- it will be a life-changing experience that you will not regret.
About Fulbright-Hays Scholarships from American Councils
American Councils for International Education has received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad, to provide scholarships for advanced overseas Russian and Persian language study. Learn more about the eligibility requirements here.
About Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad
The Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, commonly referred to as the Fulbright-Hays Act, was made law by the 87th U.S. Congress under President John F. Kennedy on September 21, 1961. Senator J. William Fulbright and Representative Wayne Hays introduced the legislation, which represents the basic charter for U.S. government-sponsored educational and cultural exchange. 2016 marks the 55th anniversary of this landmark legislation. More information about Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad can be found here.