There and Back Again

Reflections on childlike wonder, old passions and new places

by Tess Bowler | 9/14/22 2:10am

20220405-study-abroad-by-julia
by Julia Siegel / The Dartmouth Staff

At six years old, I sat quietly in front of the television as my mother put on my favorite movie of all time. Pyramids, pharaohs and gold artifacts flashed before the screen, and I was immersed in the world of “The Mummy,” a film about explorers in the 1920s who awaken an ancient high priest in their quest to excavate the famed “City of the Dead.” I can hardly begin to describe the impact that this film had on me as a small child; soon after watching it, when my teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I was older, I proudly told her I wanted to be an archaeologist, just like my mom and Evie O’Connell, the female protagonist of the film. Growing up, I begged my mom to let me read her old Egyptology books from when she was in college, despite the fact that I was in middle school at the time and could not  easily comprehend archaic textbooks from the 1980s. Even though archaeology is no longer my dream profession, Egyptian and broader Middle Eastern Studies have held a special place in my heart ever since.

Late this summer, now age 19, I sat quietly in front of a movie screen and watched as my favorite local theater screened “The Mummy” for its 23rd anniversary. Although I have seen the movie dozens of times, this viewing was different. As the men in the movie conversed in Arabic, I no longer needed to follow the subtitles that I once did as a small child. This comprehension is the reward of almost a year of Arabic studies and 10 weeks spent studying abroad in Morocco.

When I told people I was going to Morocco this summer, they were often softly shocked, and inquired why I was going there when I could be studying abroad in somewhere “nicer” (their words, not mine) like Italy or France. I usually told them that it was because I wanted to go somewhere a little more interesting, where I probably wouldn’t have traveled otherwise, but deep down I knew that it was partially due to my mother’s background in archeology — and, of course, “The Mummy.”

It’s funny to remember that a large part of why I chose to take Arabic as a freshman — and why I am now a Middle Eastern Studies major — was because of a silly action movie that influenced me so much as a little kid. In high school, I took classes on the Middle East, but had no particular plans to fully pursue it in college. My mom even said that she wouldn’t be thrilled if I took Arabic as a first-year, because she thought it might eventually end in me seeking out a job in the Middle East. Although she was certainly jumping to conclusions like the worrier she is, I don’t think that many parents would be in favor of their kids living far away, especially in a foreign and historically unstable region.

After my first quarter at Dartmouth — where I avoided Middle Eastern Studies completely — I was academically lost. I had taken one film course — because I once thought I might major in film — Introduction to Sociology and my required writing class, Humanities I. None of the courses piqued my interest in the way I had hoped they would. I came into college ready to finally study things I thought I would be passionate about, and I left defeated. As the trees went bare, temperatures dropped and my first quarter at college came to a close, this exasperation led to much time spent ruminating over what I wanted to get out of my education, and why I chose Dartmouth at all. 

These thoughts often led back to six-year-old me, her obsession with Egypt and her distinctly childlike curiosity for something that had no practical relevance to her life. That was the first time in my life I had been passionate about learning, and perhaps the only time in my life I had wanted to do so with no academic achievement at stake. Inspired by my younger self, I decided to sign up for Arabic and Introduction to Middle Eastern Studies that winter, hoping that this would provide me with some idea of what I really wanted to study. 

I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m not the best at Arabic. Languages have never been my strong suit, so I honestly didn’t expect to take classes on one of the hardest languages and be a star student. I spent many nights during the wWinter and sSpring terms of my freshman year frustrated over homework and reviewing vocabulary for tests, and even though many of my classmates found it easy most of the time, I could never seem to hit my stride. 

To be honest, this was one of the first times in my life I continued to pursue something that I was not inherently good at. Like many kids at Dartmouth, I never got a B in high school, played a sport I didn’t end up captain of or submitted an essay I knew I wouldn’t get praised for, so these last few quarters have been an humbling experience for me. When it would get hard and I considered quitting — and it often did get hard, just ask my friends — I returned to reflecting on my childhood, like I had at the end of my first term. 

Although these past few quarters have included some of the most difficult academics of my life, I’ve had more personally rewarding moments than I can count. Studying the Middle East and doing the Arabic LSA+ not only fulfilled my childhood aspirations, but have given me some of the most valuable experiences, things and people in my life right now. Over the past year, I’ve lived in an endlessly intriguing country, learned a new language and met some of my best friends. I don’t know how many other 19-year-olds can say that. 

I’m finishing this article right after leaving my 2A: “MES 8.01,” Introduction to Middle Eastern Politics. In class, I sat next to one of my good friends who was in Morocco with me and during the break we quietly conversed about how excited we were for this course. I haven’t felt this glee for learning since I was six, and I hope to feel it for the rest of my Dartmouth career. 

Moral of the story: Take that risk. Do it for your inner child. You might have some frustrating times and learn some hard lessons, but you might also meet your best friend, like I did. You might have regrets, but you might also get to ride a camel in the desert. Sometimes, it takes remembering a time before you started school to figure out what you truly love. There is a world outside the small town of Hanover and the pressure of academia. You just have to be brave enough to go out and find it. 

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