Semester Abroad

Q&A with Jackson Foltz, CAS ‘20

May 8, 2020
By Cindy Luo, Penn Abroad Leader, CAS ‘20

Jackson Foltz, a senior studying international relations, spent a semester abroad in Rabat, Morocco, with the AMIDEAST: Regional Studies in French program during Spring 2019. We sat down with him to dive deeper into his time abroad, his holistic learning experiences, and what made them so meaningful.

Can you go into a little bit more about what you study here at Penn and how you made the decision to study abroad?
I study international relations and choosing Morocco was part of the justification for the Modern Middle East Studies minor. I had known since high school that I wanted to study international relations, and so it just became a matter of: am I going to have a theoretical concentration, like for example, terrorism and its relationship to the West, or terrorism in general, or was my concentration going to be area studies? And I wanted to use language to the extent that I have it. I came to Penn already being able to speak Spanish and my French was okay. “Comme ci, comme ça” as we say. I wanted to bolster my French, and studying abroad in North Africa gave me the opportunity to say, “okay, Modern Middle East Studies will be my area concentration--North Africa region”.

Who did you talk to that helped you decide on a specific program in Rabat, Morocco?
Jacob Gross from the Penn Abroad office was really helpful--talking through some of the particulars of the program. I also spoke with a former French professor, and that was really helpful because I had been torn between Senegal and Morocco. I realized very quickly into researching that Wolof is very much the colloquial language in Senegal, and French is spoken mainly for day-to-day activities, regardless of where I chose in Africa. My one French professor who had taught about her experience in Senegal was the one that I went to. She helped me understand that I would have to learn Wolof as well. When I realized that it was between using French for official communication with people, but having to learn a colloquial no matter where I went, it became about: in the future could I see Arabic being more useful and applicable or can I see Wolof being more useful and applicable? I knew that I wanted to go to Africa because I wanted to learn holistically, and I trusted that there were things that I had to learn about life--about portion control, for example, or the way that people think about family and value systems from somewhere outside of the West. And now being able to relate to language is such an important conduit to relating to people; honestly, I'm able to relate to Muslim friends in a way. 

You mentioned a lot about language. Can you speak more about your language experiences, with either Arabic or French, and how that evolved in Rabat?
The program AMIDEAST has centers throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and their focus is usually on Arabic. The program that I participated in was the exception; it was the regional studies in French program, but it appealed to me because it allowed me to take classes in Arabic as well, even while I was using, cultivating, and developing my French. It ended up being very practical for me. I had two subject area classes in French, one on the politics of North Africa and one on Moroccan Francophone literature. It was interesting, and then I had an Arabic grammar course and a Moroccan colloquial Arabic course.

And what stands out to you most or what surprised you most about learning in a different environment?
I had a hard time learning. I'm learning colloquial Moroccan Arabic; it was special because the classroom is the classroom, but you're also really learning it all the time. Having an understanding of the language and then being able to go out and use it all day and then being able to bring what you're experiencing outside of the classroom back in, was unique to Morocco and unique to somebody who's immersing themselves in a language. I would recommend any Penn student to immerse themselves in a language that they don't have, in a culture that they're unfamiliar with, respectfully, and with the intent to contribute. Humans are creatures of habit, but when we step outside of the context with which we're familiar, it really stretches and pulls us in ways that can result in growth, and that was my experience. Being in an immersion context totally changes the way that lessons apply to our lives. Sometimes it can be easy coming home from a class at Penn to disconnect totally from the material. Sometimes it can feel like you live one life as a student in the classroom and then you say, “okay, now I can take my student hat off when I'm outside of a classroom and live my ‘real person life’, my social life or something, to be a different self”. Being in an immersion experience I think integrates the “you” that you present in every context in a way that is helpful to holistic learning.

How did you balance being in a new environment and trying to take everything in? Were there challenges that came up that you didn’t expect?
Yes. There were a couple of challenges. I think a big one is missing people at home, but I think that's important. One of the benefits of study abroad is you come back, having a completely different understanding of how you relate to the world around you, and again it's kind of being stretched and molded and pulled in a way that is sometimes uncomfortable. It was challenging to be away from the context with which I'm so familiar because it helped me to realize how unique my own experience is. And that's not to say that there aren’t privileges that I share with other people who come from similar backgrounds as me, who look like I do, who have studied in the schools that I have. Every person's experience is unique and when they step outside of it, there's so much learning that happens. For me, studying abroad was all the more useful because I have grown up in Philadelphia, and I've gone to college in Philadelphia. I think some people have experienced this challenge just being at Penn--certainly international students' experiences, certainly those who study abroad here, but even American students who are coming from other parts of the country, or students who also come from Anglophone countries. They might be able to relate to certain things but are still so far removed from people. After study abroad, I'm able to relate now to other people being challenged in that way. It gave me insight into how to cultivate a sense of belonging, what it looks like to be hospitable to people, what it looks like to honor people's unique cultures without discounting another. 

Over the course of study abroad, how do you get to a place where you're able to honor a culture, where you're able to appreciate it? 
We talked about that during study abroad. We had a helpful session of how it is that you are getting acclimated to life in Morocco, and they said that there's like a four-part process. There's initial glee upon arrival, and then frustration with how things are different. Habits have to change. What you were initially drawn to or allured by--it no longer shares the same allure as it did for the first fleeting moment, and then you reach a place of acceptance of the new context, appreciating it for its nuance, recognizing differences and understanding the reason for differences in culture. And then there's, perhaps never full acclimation, but in a sense, by the end of study abroad, it definitely felt hard to leave because we had developed these close relationships. To the extent that every relationship is unique and every person's experience with culture is unique, we had made a little culture of our own in the program. 

I like how appreciative and reflective you are of these experiences. I know that you lived with a host family and that was a big part of your life there. How was your experience living with them?
They were amazing, so hospitable, and so generous. It was two parents--Nadia and Rashid--and then two sons, and it didn't feel like it was only us because they were constantly inviting friends and family over to the house. Their home was always full. I think the best part about staying with the host family is understanding what it looks like to be hospitable. Here's a family that has traditions of its own, its own family culture, and here I am, an American living with them, participating with them in everything it is that they do in their routine. I gained an appreciation for how open they were to invite me into the daily grind of Moroccan life. Our relationship became really strong over the course of the semester; we made inside jokes with one another. I became really close, over time, with the two sons. 

I think one of the hard parts about living with a host family is how challenging it can be to not make promises. There is a desire to make promises that you can't keep. I certainly felt that and what I tried to do by the end of the semester was to be really honest with the whole family about my intentions. They would ask me repeatedly if I thought I was coming back to Morocco and I said, “probably not." They'd asked me, “why don't you want to visit us?” And of course, after having been together for five months, it was awkward, and it didn't really make sense to them. It didn't really take much explanation; they understood that it's expensive to fly from the United States to Morocco, and they understood I have family here. But the benefit of a host family is depending on the host family that one is paired with. There really is that opportunity to become a part of a second family. I think it really makes people question: to what extent is family something that we can build, rather than something that we just fall into, something that is almost fated? Is it possible to build and cultivate family without being relatives, literally flesh and blood? That was something that living with them gave me. I'm grateful for that.

I wanted to get more insight into your daily life in Rabat. What did a typical day look like for you and what was the dynamic of your daily interactions?
Most people took the bus to school. My roommate was from West Point; talking to him about the culture of West Point was cultural immersion in every sense-- being in a Moroccan home with a Moroccan family with a fellow American from West Point. We would wake up in the morning and walk to school, a 45-minute walk, but it became a routine for us. We'd get to school at around nine. Every day, it was intermediate Arabic, learning about grammar. And then, depending on the day, it was either French literature or break. On the break days, I would often do homework for another class, which might take me until noon. There's a student lounge, so we would regularly congregate there and check-in--catch up on homework, tell stories about what it was like last night with our host families, and eat lunch. Around 1:30, it was usually another class. And then at 3, people would usually start leaving for the day. 

That was when I would go to the internship experience, and this experience in Morocco is responsible for a lot of the growth that I had. Working with migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, and learning about the lives that they have created. These people welcomed me even before we really knew each other. I was teaching English to migrants because many of them had ambitions to go on to Europe. They were looking at Morocco as a transit country. I was teaching English to the best of my ability. Some of the lunch check-ins would be about what we were teaching that day with fellow instructors in the same internship.

The internship building had a piano downstairs and something like a music room. The variety of drums in this music room was amazing, so we would go down there. I made good friends with one of the young men, an immigrant from Cameroon, who’s working on his own music business. We developed a really good friendship and started something of an acapella group together, and so we would sing. Sometimes we made videos. By the end of the semester, we were seeing each other every day. And he was a fellow Christian, so we would talk about his experience. Some days after the internship, I was lucky enough to find a church that was Francophone in Rabat. Here's a 99% Sunni Muslim country, but there was a Protestant congregation of Sub-Saharan African migrants on the block that my host family was living on. So sometimes, with my friend Isaac, we would walk together from the internship. It's like maybe 7 pm at this point. We'd get to the closest taxi station, and there are two types of taxis; there are the blue ones that cost the equivalent of 3 US dollars. And there are the white ones, which cost the equivalent of like 50 cents. And when you take the white one, you're packed in like sardines, literally--four sometimes five people in the backseat. The law is not worried about it. You just want to make sure everybody gets home safely. 

I would get home as late as nine; dinner was very late in Morocco. We’d eat as a family around that time and go to bed. But you couldn't go a day in Morocco without encountering the reality of differences on the basis of class, on the basis of color, on the basis of the relationship and the intersectionality there. There are really interesting dynamics between Arab Moroccans and Muslim Moroccans, and specifically Christian Sub-Saharan African Moroccans, and sometimes non-Moroccans--Christian Sub-Saharan African migrants, and just perceptions of identity and discrimination. It became very much so part of the daily experience of "Oh, we're passing the area of the city where the migrants live." You don't really want to go too deep in there, or the perception was, you will lose whatever's in your pockets. That, of course, is something that is challenging for an outsider to the extent that I was one. To influence Moroccan perceptions of migrants who were passing through Morocco, but living sometimes for extended periods of time in the country--as an American that's something that was impossible to speak to but certainly something I came across every day I was there. And for that reason, I think that affirmed what I was looking for in terms of wanting a study abroad experience where I was learning holistically.

Rapid Fire Questions

What new foods did you try? Do you have a favorite?
So many new foods--favorite new food is called pastilla. It's flaky. I described it to my father as like a sweet hamburger cookie. It's a meal. I know it sounds wrong, but it’s delicious. Its ground beef inside a flaky pastry topped with powdered sugar. I think it actually comes from Spanish influence in Morocco. If there's ever an intercultural country, it's Morocco.

What’s the most essential item that you packed from home? 
My Bible, because I wasn't gonna find one there.

What’s the most useful colloquial, or slang term that you learned?
“Mashi mushkil” which means “no problem”. There's very much a culture of “no worries”. For the most part, “mashi mushkil” was applicable in every scenario. Even in professional business meetings, you could say “mashi mushkil” about something that wasn't turned in on time, and people might grin.

Favorite place you traveled to when you were in Morocco or outside of Morocco?
Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. It's gorgeous. 

Where are you going next?
I think I'm going to stay in Philly. I'm hoping to marry my girlfriend in the next year or so. And so, I will probably be following her to where her job prospects are looking really good, which right now looks like the San Francisco Bay Area. But for the next year or so, I’m staying here.

Wow. I’m happy for you. Last question, what are three words you would use to describe your study abroad experience?
Not joking: life-changing. 


The Semester Abroad (SA) program offers undergraduate students the opportunity to study in a new global community through extended study for a semester or year. Penn Abroad partners with top institutions around the globe and collaborates with Penn’s undergraduate schools to offer programs for students across academic disciplines.

Semester Abroad, Global Correspondents
by Jackie Shi, CAS '21