IES Abroad: Tell us a bit about yourself and your study abroad blog.
Katya Schwenk (KS): I grew up in Vermont and Massachusetts, and am now living in D.C., where I'm a senior at Georgetown University. At Georgetown, I've studied government, creative writing, Arabic, and Spanish; outside of that, though, I'm a writer and reporter, focusing on longform journalism. Other interests of mine include the mountains, radio, and distance running.
In Spring 2019, I studied abroad with IES Abroad in Morocco, and kept a blog for the semester. I've never written about a subject as interesting, as stunning, or as challenging as Rabat. But I'm so glad to have been able to do so, and even more honored to have been selected for this award!
IES Abroad: What was your favorite post to write and why?
KS: I think the post that was most important for me to write was "On Catcalling, Trains, and Taxi Drivers." It was my way of addressing questions about gender in Morocco that I think tend to attract a disproportionate level of scrutiny from Americans—the kinds of questions that I don't have complete answers to, myself. It sparked a lot of conversations with friends and family that were more nuanced than they might have been otherwise. And for me, it was a helpful means of processing my own experience living as a woman in Morocco—and to pay tribute to a couple of fascinating and kind people I met that semester: a Marxist philosophy professor on a train and a taxi driver in Asilah.
IES Abroad: How did serving as a Correspondent impact your experience while studying abroad in Rabat?
KS: I think when you're tasked to write about anything, you go through life more thoughtfully. I started jotting down lists of people I spoke to, moments that struck me. I have a notebook full of scribbles about the way the sun looked on one Tuesday, funny words in Moroccan Arabic I learned, the skinned fish being sold in the markets. I didn't always end up writing about those things, but I remember them more vividly now. It would have been easy not to record them. But deadlines, it turns out, make you do that!
Keeping the blog was also a good way to share the finer, brighter details of my semester with friends and family. I wrote about a lot of topics that I find hard to explain in small talk, but that I wanted to express to people in my life back home. My family was definitely glad, too, that I hadn't vanished totally off the grid.
IES Abroad: What blogging tips or tricks do you have for future study abroad Correspondents?
KS: It is absurdly easy to get behind on writing, and I always am, which is stressful. So my first advice is to avoid that! It will make your finals week far easier.
But then besides that, I think that the best advice I have is to engage profoundly with the place you're living in. If you only talk to Americans and never get out into the city, you'll have a lot less material to write about.
IES Abroad: What are the top reasons to study abroad in Rabat, in your opinion? How did your experience in Rabat compare to prior international experiences you’ve had?
KS: Rabat is really, sincerely so dear to my heart—I can never properly express to people how absurdly good my time there was. It's difficult to squeeze it into bullet point lists. Here's the best I can do:
First, Rabat is a fantastic place to study languages—yes, Arabic too, even if formal Arabic is less common there.
Second, there's an expansive diversity of culture and tradition and ideology, which will challenge perspectives that you didn't know you had.
And then Rabat, itself, is a beautiful city. It's right on the ocean, where rocky black cliffs topped with flowers stretch on eternally. There are historic gardens at every turn. It's a lovely, lovely place to live.
I find comparison, too, really difficult. I'd lived only in Latin America before this, outside of the U.S. I think my cop-out answer here is that my time in Morocco really just built on what I learned living with other host families, traveling alone, and working through language barriers—because those are challenges you'll face everywhere.
IES Abroad: I see that in addition to Arabic and Government, you’re studying Creative Writing at Georgetown. Did maintaining a blog serve as a creative outlet for you? Did you find anything challenging or unexpected about writing in this medium?
KS: All writing feels creative to me, even if I'm writing about very concrete, tangible realities. I think through any kind of writing you necessarily fictionalize things. So writing for IES Abroad was definitely, in a lot of ways, a creative outlet for me.
But obviously at the same time, it was not strictly creative—and because of that, and because I'd never kept any sort of personal blog before, it was challenging. I was nervous of falling back on stereotypes as I wrote, as an American, about another country that I'd hardly lived in. And it was always hard to strike a balance between sharing my personal experience and writing about the external place. Those were important challenges, though, to face and to think about while living abroad.
IES Abroad: It’s clear from the way you’re able to pace a narrative and write as a more detached observer that you have experience writing. How long have you been writing, and what genre(s) do you tend towards? Why are you passionate about writing?
KS: I've been writing for as long as I can remember. It's always been such an important part of how I interact with the world. Right now, I'm working as a reporter and freelance writer, so I'm focusing mostly on journalistic pieces (I write about technology, government, and music). But I also write a lot of narrative fiction and poetry outside of that.
Writing takes the knotted mess of our experience and smooths it out, makes it linear, and makes it art. I think that's really beautiful.
IES Abroad: In one of your posts, you write about how much more knowledge the world seems to have of the U.S. than its actual citizens do. What other ways did studying abroad widen your perspective?
KS: The world does have an astounding knowledge of the U.S., and traveling always reminds me of how narrow my perspective is in comparison. So I think my arrival in Morocco was an initial, abrupt reminder of what I didn't know. Widened perspectives came after that.
I was lucky enough to do a lot of reporting work while I lived in Rabat, which I think is the best way to widen your worldview because it leads you to people you would never have encountered otherwise. I had conversations with opposition journalists, professors on strike, Amazigh activists, and women mountain guides. I'm more aware now of how shaped I am by my own upbringing, education, and ideologies—and have a lot of very specific perspectives on North African current events that I never thought I'd come away with (and that my family is probably tired of hearing about).
IES Abroad: How has studying abroad redefined you and your world?
KS: I think studying abroad in Rabat widened all of my definitions. My world is far more expansive now that there is a house in the ancient market in Rabat that I called home, now that I can speak to people in Arabic or French, now that I have connections to so many in Morocco. I feel absolutely, absurdly lucky to have been able to travel in such a lasting way, and to have so many stories to share now that I'm back in D.C.
IES Abroad: Anything else you’d like to share?
KS: This spring, I was constantly impressed by the care and dedication that IES Abroad Rabat staff brought to their work—so I'd like to share all my thanks to everyone at that Center. Support networks like that are so important.
And to anyone considering going to Rabat: Go! Some of the most beautiful memories of my life were made in that city. You might never have this kind of chance again.
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<p>I'm at junior at Georgetown, studying government, creative writing, and Arabic. I grew up in Vermont and Massachusetts. Interests include (but are not limited to!) radio, poetry, hiking, and beekeeping.</p>