Sophia Bagnall, of Midland, went to Oman to study Arabic and came back this summer with a list of friends’ contacts, a collection of pictures and an appreciation of the culture.
An incoming senior at Grand Valley State University, Bagnall received a $20,000 Barbara H. Padnos International Scholarship to study abroad and spent nine months at the University of Nizwa. She is pursuing a degree in international relations with a minor in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies with the hopes of eventually working for the state department. She explained Arabic is considered a critical language and not enough people are able to speak it in the workplace. That’s where the international courses came into play.
“The best way to learn a language is through emersion,” Bagnall said. “I went (to Oman) to really get a feel for the culture and the language.”
Bagnall spent the first two years at GVSU studying the language and culture of the Middle East. During the summer before the study abroad program started, she spent a month in Oman and 10 days in Dubai as part of a school program. Once Bagnall began her stay, she realized the difference between learning a language in a classroom and using it every day in a “more intensive” environment.
Bagnall had a full course load of Arabic classes at the University of Nizwa, but also took time to explore the culture of Omani firsthand. Her favorite excursions included swimming in the Wadi Shab where she appreciated the natural beauty of a cave, canyons and a waterfall; visiting the Royal Opera House in Muscat; eating kabsa, a traditional Saudi dish of seasoned rice and meat; camping on a mountain and seeing a desert for the first time.
“The desert is amazing. I’ve never seen anything like that before. It’s almost like an ocean, with sand everywhere, as far as you can see.”
There were a couple of cultural adjustments, including wearing clothing that went past her elbows and knees as well as putting on a hijab to go inside mosques. But Bagnall saw more similarities than differences.
“I think being there widened my worldview and made me see that people are just people, wherever you go,” she observed. “We all really want the same things, it doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are.”