Year Abroad in Rabat Part 3. My Rigid & Structured Self

I’m a person who struggles with change. In particular, the change whose outcome I can’t predict or foresee. It frustrates me a lot not knowing where I’m going, or what I’m doing with enough time to plan and prepare ahead. I’m an excessively structured person, very task-oriented. I’m all about rules, lists, agendas and schedules. That’s how I grew up, institutionalised. At Sussex, my university, this has never been an issue. We get information about our assessments, scheduled sessions and breaks at the beginning of the term. There are handbooks, mark schemes and guidelines to help us manage our work. If there are any issues, I can just contact my school’s office, and I know it will be sorted out soon. Everything just flows fine, a proper structure I’m a familiar with.

Now, this wasn’t the case at EGE Rabat in Morocco. As an institution, EGE was just so distinct from Sussex. I realised even before arriving at the school, when it took me ages and some nagging to get my acceptance letter, and I vainly tried to find out what modules I could study, and their content. As my time to leave the UK drew closer, and I didn’t know much about what was waiting for me 3-4 hours away by plane, I wondered: would my rigid and structured self survive the year? Now I know that it did. It did survive. But, it took a lot of patience. And, some serious self-introspection that probably came too late.

EGE. My exchange there seems such a distant memory, and it only ended 5 months ago. EGE, which stands for Ecole de Gouvernance et d’Economie Rabat (Rabat School of Governance and Economy), is an institution part of the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University. It is a sort-of faculty, specialised in one area (political, economic and social sciences) that operates like a solo mini-university, situated on its own in Al Irfane. It is comprised of a single medium-size modern building, with four-five floors and small parking spaces. Inside, there are mainly seminar classrooms, at least one lecture theatre, various offices, a spacious cafeteria, a two-floor library/study area, and a student lounge. That’s it (as far as I can remember).

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Institutionally, it was a very big change for me. I went from a campus university with various schools and nearly £17k student, to a country-wide university’s lone school with around 200-400 students. And, I liked it. It meant less walking around to get to class, and less trouble to settle in since everything becomes familiar quicker. Infrastructure-wise, EGE was a pleasant school, with adequate and comfortable facilities (I wish we had a longue in my school at Sussex, was rather handy!). My first time at the school, I only visited the cafeteria and the international offices, since I arrived weeks before the term started. Oh, the cafeteria. I frequented it a lot, particularly for breakfast and for snacks. My usual order was meloui, a delicious round Moroccan bread/pancake, with natural orange juice!

As I write this, I remember how much I was looking forward to orientation week at EGE: I was bored from not doing much. In addition, I still didn’t know for sure what I was going to study for the term. Back then, I wish I knew my main issue wasn’t going to be my academic studies. I was so worried about them, that I began neglecting other aspects of my exchange. And, I was never able to repair that mistake. Orientation week marked my stay at EGE a lot, creating a pattern that never shifted throughout my year abroad: I only attended the informative sessions, and I skipped the cultural-social activities. The reason for this was my health. Sometimes I just didn’t feel well enough to make it to non-essential things. And by non-essential, I meant every activity outside my studies.

I barely had a social life whilst studying in Rabat, and the only thing that makes it a “barely had”, and not a “didn’t have at all”, was my flatmate and a classmate, with whom I went out a few times. Being introverted, asocial and chronically ill are not great feats to make friends. I also must admit I didn’t have the best attitude and mindset regarding this area. And, looking back at it now, though I know it was a mistake, I’m not sure to which extent I regret it. I wish I made more friends in EGE and experienced social life in Morocco more, but I’m also okay with this not happening. I mean, it isn’t good, but I’m not going to die because of it. So, it is fine. That’s how I live life nowadays. Something bad happens. But, did I die? No. Then, it is fine.

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On a more positive note, whilst the process of choosing my modules at EGE was vexing, I felt like it was worth it in the end. I enjoyed all the subjects I studied, even if I chose various not knowing what to expect. I really loved them. Everything I learnt where things I never got the chance to study deeply at Sussex, and/or, I never came across before. And that was great. During the first term, I took: Civil Society, Cultural Studies (CS), Economics for Public Policy (EPP), and Studies in Postcoloniality (SiP). During the second term, I did: MENA in the 20th century, Afro-Asian Affairs, International Political Economy (IPE), Ethnography of Everyday Life, and the Body and Political Resistance. As you can see, I took a variety of courses in different areas, all useful for my degree in International Development.

All the classes were seminars/workshops, some of them with lecture elements, but most rich in discussions, student presentations and/or activities. The style and structure of each varied a lot according to the professor. Some followed an exact schedule for the term, and for each session, whilst others were more flexible and unpredictable. As you can imagine, style-wise, I preferred the structured classes, the ones in which the professors gave a mini-lecture through it. However, some of the professors who had a less rigid style were very engaging, so I ended up adapting well to their classes, even loving them. In terms of assessments, I had a variety of tests, presentations, case studies and essays. It involved more regular work than Sussex, which was a bit annoying since my grades weren’t going to count for my final degree.

I was particularly keen on EPP and IPE, because I find economics and politics (their relationship) very interesting, and I wanted to improve my knowledge on it (which I did, thanks to the great professors!). I also loved CS and SiP, which had the same professor, who really helped with my knowledge of social theories, and pushed me to reflect on myself in respect to them (for CS, I did a presentation on the cultural significance of afro combs and afro hair, and for SiP, I did a presentation and wrote a paper on literature in one of my home countries, Equatorial Guinea).  Perhaps, the shining star from all the modules I took was Ethnography of Everyday Life. Not only was the professor amazing, but I got the chance to do a real research project on the field.  As someone who wants to be a researcher, and had never done qualitative fieldwork before, this was a daunting and thrilling prospect. At times, I dreaded it. Other times, I couldn’t wait.

I was able to devise my own research plan and pursue my own idea, as long as it related to the sociological concept of everyday life. I chose to do research with a women migrant association in Rabat, working with two Sub-Saharan African women, and using a combination of methods I had learnt at Sussex and at EGE, including body mapping, community mapping, and a reflection journal. During my time in the field, I learnt a lot about the situation of migrant women, particularly Black African women, in Rabat, who face various that intersect (poverty, xenophobia, racism, sexism, refugee status) whilst trying to support each other as part two wider communities (the general migrant community, and the Black African community). At times whilst in the field, it was tough to be a scholar and not a Black girl with a similar (but more privileged) background. Nevertheless, I ended up realising I can’t completely separate myself from my research interests since my those interested are guided by who I am.

Looking back at my studies in EGE, there was only one class/professor I didn’t like, though this was during my second term, and it had a lot to do with me feeling forced to do the course. I had to take it to have enough credits since French classes weren’t running for the term. Oh, language classes! I haven’t mentioned those. Though they were part of my curriculum, I mentally don’t count them because language learning for me has normally been casual. A leisure activity. Of course, at EGE, it wasn’t. Standard Arabic and French were proper modules, with four hours of each weekly. Language study was my main reason to choose EGE as a place to do my exchange, and even though I couldn’t do the intensive Arabic programme I wanted to do, I still hoped to improve my languages skills. Sadly, this aspect of my exchange was a bit of a letdown.

Before arriving at EGE, I did a written French test to be placed on a course for my level. When I arrived at EGE, I did a written Arabic test and an oral Arabic test for the same reason. Until I started my classes, I didn’t know which level I would be doing for each. The problem surged when, for French, I realised I was in a too high level. And, for Arabic, in a bit of a lower one (during the 1st term). On the one hand, my first term doing Arabic ended up feeling like a revision period, which never hurts. The second term involved more actual learning and practice, as the classes involved more advanced discussions on social and political issues, such as Muslims in the West & the Arab Spring. I enjoyed Arabic classes in general, I had good teachers, though the differences in learning pace between both semesters (one too slow, another too fast) was a bit exasperating at times.

On the other hand, French classes were just too hard for me. Most of my classmates were from nearly-fluent to fluent in French, very comfortable speaking in it. I was normally fine reading, even listening, but not speaking. I wasn’t used to it, and my grammar wasn’t good. Unfortunately, the classes focused on reading, speaking and listening exercises. Not grammar. The struggle was real. I often wanted to contribute to discussions, but I felt like an idiot when I tried. I was very frustrated with my inability to speak like my classmates. If it weren’t for my encouraging and understanding teacher, I would have been very demoralised the whole term. Also, I couldn’t switch classes, because there were only two levels of French available, total beginner or intermediate. So, I had to suck it up and challenge myself with standards I couldn’t reach. In the end, I did improve my French a lot, though I still wished I could have learnt more grammar.

Considering everything above, it hopefully comes clear that my discontent with EGE were not the people or my studies. It was the administration. For me, EGE was a good place to study. Yet, EGE wasn’t a good place to be a student. The major issues I had could all be traced back to the bureaucratic side of the institution. The paperwork. The offices. I had major trouble to properly organise and manage my studies because of it. Not knowing my module options, and/or their content, in advance, despite repeated requests/queries, was not the only issue. After my first term, finding out my grades was a major headache. I needed to know them to make sure I was choosing the right number of modules for my second term, and getting enough credits. It took me various emails, conflicting responses, and trips to the offices to finally get them. This also happened during my second term, back in the UK when trying to complete my reports on my exchange.

In addition, I had problems with my timetable. Classes were sometimes changed and/or cancelled without any significant notice, or any notice at all. This made me miss some, and/or turn up to empty classrooms confused (my attendance was already not-perfect because of my health, this made it worse). Furthermore, during the second term, for some reason, I wasn’t on the student mailing list, and I ended up missing out on some opportunities. I raised my concern about this, but as usual, whenever I had a problem, I was told to send an email about it, and never got a response. All these issues irritated me severely, sometimes I even left fuming. They are the reasons why I couldn’t wait to come back to Sussex, and why sometimes I regret studying at EGE.

However, towards the end of my exchange, something dawned on me. What happens when you are mad about something, and then all along you realise you might be the problem? It is an unpleasant moment of self-realisation. It occurred to me when I was giving a presentation with one of my classmates for one of my classes. I prepared my part a lot, it had a perfect structure, and the slides looked on point. Meanwhile, my peer’s part was more spontaneous, with less structured information and slides. Guess who did it better? My peer. Because he was actually engaging. He was interesting. You see, when you spend a lot of time structuring everything, worrying about perfect schedules and good plans, you become more of a robot, and less of a person. Robots might be efficient and deliver expected results, but they are boring and lifeless.

I’m a robot. I live by structures so much that I don’t actually know to live life as it is: a fluid, unpredictable and ever-changing mess. During my exchange, I only cared about my studies and being perfect at them. In fact, my life has been all about my studies since 2012. All about educational institutions. Being part of rigorous institutions is the only way I can function. I grew up in institutional care, and my asocial personality and personal attachments issues haven’t helped to shift my mindset and way of being. Whilst EGE could have been more organised and/or communicative, the problems I had were not the end of the world. Institutional and organisational cultures differ, some are less strict and structured than others, and I need to able to adapt to that. I need be able to go with the flow, be more spontaneous and open to what I can’t predict/foresee.

At the end of the day, I went to EGE to study and learn things I hadn’t yet, to improve my language skills. And, I achieved that. I achieved all I wanted. And, to be honest, even more. Being a student an EGE might have been irritating at times, but also gave me great opportunities, such as doing an internship in a think thank during my first term. I was part of the team preparing an international conference that was going to take place in Marrakesh, during which I would be working too. The experience I got working there was very valuable, I was able to do a variety of tasks, even things outside the conference preparation area, such as helping to edit/proofread interesting policy/research papers. It was great having something to do outside classes as well, so I wasn’t all the time at home. Another perk was that I got free lunch whenever I went to work (which was most days of the week), and I was able to meet my flatmate in the canteen there often since she worked in an organisation that had their office in the same building.

On top of everything, attending the international conference in Marrakesh was the non-academic highlight of my time in Morocco. I got to sleep and eat in a 5 stars hotel for free for various days, whilst spending two days working in the conference hosted in another 5 stars hotel. Since I was part of the Communications team, I was able to attend the conference sessions, which were on fascinating topics related to international affairs, from food security and agriculture to trade and foreign policy. Some of the plenaries and discussions were very engaging and thought-provoking, such as one about representing Africa and another about world superpowers.

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It was great how the speakers and attendees where politicians, experts and academics from all over the world, with a notable African presence. It was my first time attending a conference, and I couldn’t have been in a more diverse and enriching place (knowledge and ethnicity wise). I felt particularly inspired by various Black African women speakers, such as the Nigerian Oby Ezekwesili, co-founder of Transparency International and one of the people behind #BRINGOURGIRLSBACK, and the Senegalese Aminata Touré, ex-Senegalese PM who works a lot on women rights and corruption.

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The internship at the think tank wasn’t an experience I could have done easily whilst at Sussex, particularly the international conference part. It is one of two key reasons –the other one being the ethnographic research project—why, despite everything, I’m still glad I did a year abroad studying in EGE Rabat, in Morocco. I had a chance to acquire new experiences I wouldn’t have at Sussex, experiences closer to what I want for more future personal and professional life (i.e. working in Africa/working in an Africa-related setting). Even my classes at EGE, such as SiP, made me feel closer to my Sub-Saharan African background. Besides, it can’t be forgotten how I was able to easily go to Senegal from Morocco, as my trip was during the winter break of my exchange. Furthermore, though I didn’t make lots of friends, I did have nice colleagues and classmates with whom I’m still in touch. And of course, there is my wonderful flatmate and her best friend, who were always so welcoming and kind.

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Due to all this, the last evening I spent in Rabat, invited to Iftar to my flatmate’s friend house, was a bittersweet one. I missed Brighton and my home university, but I had some great memories from my time in Morocco. To this day, this is still a dilemma for me. It is hard to compare the overall positives to the overall negatives from my whole experiences since the positives made feel really great, but the negatives very awful. I guess in life there is always regret, a “what if” feeling when you make a decision with several options, like the one I did when choosing to do a year abroad in Rabat. In retrospective, I think the experience was more wonderful than awful, or better said, the wonderfulness supersedes the awfulness. Maybe it is just the positive and less perfectionist mindset I’m trying to have, but I will leave it like that. Time for a new status about my exchange in Morocco: “it was complicated, but I wouldn’t change my decision because of everything I learnt and all the people I met”.

 

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