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Softball's Cooley Spends Month Studying in Kuwait

Sophomore Megan Cooley

Sophomore Megan Cooley

June 30, 2014

Rising sophomore Megan Cooley took time out of her summer to study aboard in Kuwait. She describes her four-week experiences, as well as provides insight to another region of the world, below.

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"Really?" My mother's face was full of confusion and worry as I told her for the first time that I was interested in studying abroad in the Gulf Region of the Middle East this summer. Despite her initial surprise, she and the rest of my family and friends became my biggest supporters as I set off on my newest adventure. I was privileged enough with the help of the Boston College Athletics to take a four-week summer abroad class entitled "Politics and Oil in the Gulf." The course was based in Kuwait City with side trips to Doha, Qatar and Dubai and was taught by distinguished Boston College political science professor Kathleen Bailey.

I had an amazing time; in fact, it was such a full and diverse class experience that I soon realized that the athletic department's request for a "short recap" would be more difficult than I had at first thought.

Our class liked to describe our experience in phases, which I have loosely classified below. First though, for those who are in the majority and unfamiliar with Kuwait, it is a small country in the Gulf Region that shares borders with the much larger Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Gulf. It is mainly flat and desert-like, is the only country in the world with no naturally occurring bodies of water, and the temperature during the summer often exceeds 120 degrees. Sounds like a great place to vacation, right? In fact, Kuwaiti citizens are some of the best-off in the world - the country's immense oil wealth means that citizens are exempt from taxes and enjoy countless benefits (Notably, expatriate workers who make up two-thirds of the population are excluded from these benefits.). Kuwait is also the only country in the Gulf that has a democratically-elected parliament in addition to a constitutional monarchy. What this meant for those of us studying political science, international studies and economics was throwing ourselves into a political, economic and social system unlike any we had seen before.

Phase I: `Why are they dressed like that?'
Phase I can most accurately be described in one way: questions, and lots of them. What are they wearing? Where are we? Why is it so hot? Although most of us had studied the country and culture before, the use of the phrase "culture shock" would be an understatement. Not only do most people speak Arabic in addition to English, they also dress differently (many men don the traditional dishdasha and women the abaya) and live lifestyles that are completely dissimilar from the American norm. Our first week, we attended class at American University of Kuwait (AUK) during the mornings and then filled the rest of the days with various activities exploring the culture of Kuwait and Kuwait City. We visited Souk Mubarakiya (the local market), the Grand Mosque, several international corporations, countless museums, Kuwait University, and still had time to explore the area surrounding our hotel and make full use of the pool, café and nearby waterfront. The Mosque in particular was incredible; the intricacy and grander of the entire compound was something I cannot compare to anything I had seen. Yet, perhaps the most moving part of our visit was seeing one of our fellow students who is Muslim drop to his knees and pray to Allah next to our tour guide in one of the grandest places of worship in the world.

As beautiful as this moment was, I got a small taste of what it is like to be a woman in the Muslim world a few days later. Some of my male classmates and I were playing soccer on the public beach near our hotel when two young expatriates began to approach as if they wanted to join. I happened to score and when I looked again the young men had veered off in another direction. With my hair pulled back in a bun and wearing nothing but a t-shirt and shorts, I could have easily been mistaken for a boy from a distance. Seeing me score, one of my classmates pointed out, was probably not only off-putting but probably intimidating, and they most likely decided that they did not want to play when they realized I was present. This incident and my other observations throughout the trip actually inspired my research project, which will analyze the justice with which women in Kuwait and the other Gulf States are treated. I will turn in a full research paper on this topic by the end of this summer.

Phase II: All in the course of a weekend
Miraculously, we soon settled into a type of routine: Class or activities in the morning, a break in the afternoon where we would usually swim or work out (don't worry Coach, I was still getting better!) then grab some lunch and do reading or research. My 20th birthday also happened to fall on the Sunday of our weekend trip to Doha, Qatar. It was a full day that began with a cross-cultural dialogue on Arab and Western perceptions at Qatar University. We then went to visit the Emir of Qatar's collections of horses and horse-racing facilities, tried on traditional Kuwaiti dresses made by a friend of Professor Bailey, and then met back up with some of the Qatar University students we had met earlier at their local souk before heading back to the hotel and celebrating. Although we only spent one night with them, I made the assessment these girls were some of the nicest people I have ever met. We talked about school, boys and their families, despite the differences in how we spoke and dressed. I would include a picture with them (we took several) but they requested that no pictures of them be put online or on social media.

The next weekend we travelled to Dubai, the trip that I had been most excited about. Following the trend of the entire trip, it was incredibly busy. We hit the Dubai Mall soon after stepping off the plane, visited the beach, drove on a safari through the Desert of Dubai, sandboarded and visited Burj Khalifa, which is currently the tallest structure in the world (all in the course of a weekend). We also found time to take advantage of the great area near our hotel during the evening. It was during this downtime I was able to get to know all of the truly awesome people that were on this trip with me.

Phase III: Overdrive
When we returned from Dubai it was with the unwelcome realization that we only had one week left in this place that we had begun to call our home. Days turned into marathons, bucket lists came out and phrases like "Last week = no sleep!" ruled the day. We were incredibly busy for most of the days and nights with planned events or our new Kuwaiti friends. We watched a session of Parliament, visited the Kuwait Stock Exchange, climbed Al Hambra Tower and were invited to one of Professor Bailey's friend's beach shalet (beach house). Whatever breaks we had were spent on our research proposals which we turned in that Thursday. When the last couple days had arrived, it was noticeable as each experience and conversation became some of our last. Soon it was time to say "goodbye" and everyone took their separate flights (mine was actually to Dublin, where I met up with my friend and continued traveling). Before we knew it, it was over.

When I was asked at the end of the trip what my biggest takeaway from the entire experience was, I couldn't exactly answer, but I think now I can. Of course I gained an appreciation for different cultures and an expanded perception of the world that I plan to bring back to BC. More than that, however, I was struck through countless personal conversations by the fact that people everywhere share so many of the same concerns and in many cases simply lack the education, means, or incentive to address those concerns. From disenchantment with the political system to dealing with sexuality, or even which filter to choose for Instagram, the human element is constant.

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