In September 2018, while most of St Andrews were enjoying Starfields, I was settling into a country that I was to be studying in, and calling home, for three months: Morocco. When I told people where I was going, I was met with a lot of concern for my wellbeing — “They don’t treat women very well!”, “Is it safe there?” — and honestly, I had the exact same fears. While most people in the “Overseas Series” couldn’t wait to start their year abroad, I couldn’t wait for mine to be over. I was terrified, convincing myself that I was going to hate it. “It’s only three months,” I kept telling myself, as I questioned why I was leaving St Andrews to go to a new country on a different continent. I split my year abroad into two parts, spending the first three months at a Language School studying Arabic in Rabat, and the second semester in Uruguay, studying Spanish. Now looking back on my experiences, there was really no reason for me to panic. Studying abroad was an incredibly rewarding part of my university career and I have made the most of it, visiting as many places as possible and immersing myself into the culture.
What scared me the most before going to Morocco was how far away it was, and how I would suffer from a culture shock and not be able to adjust. Yes, moving to St Andrews from London in first-year felt like a jump, but I always had the reassurance that it was still the same familiar UK. Now, I had to battle a different language and culture. However, as soon as I arrived in Rabat, the capital of Morocco, I started to relax as I saw how charming it was. It’s weird to think that I spent three months in Africa because the reality is that Rabat felt very European, which I think helped put me at ease during my studies. It has a European and bureaucratic feel to it, while still having the atmosphere of a Moroccan city. For example, they have a tram network, beautiful Moroccan architecture, and the souqs have an exciting energy where you can buy almost anything, which made buying presents for loved ones all the more fun. What I liked about Rabat, in comparison to other Moroccan cities, is that the souqs do not feel as intense and are less touristy. This meant that, although I felt more aligned with western culture, I was able to immerse myself during my stay without it being too cliché.
I also saw, and experienced, the generosity of the Moroccan culture, something which surprised me the most. The friends I made out there would often invite us into their homes, give us huge meals, and introduce us to their families. Experiencing this first-hand made me think how unfair it is to see how Morocco is often portrayed as a dangerous place, when in fact the people that make up it are some of the most caring and friendly I have met.
During my semester abroad, I was able to travel to some of the most amazing places. Morocco is a beautiful country with incredible cities and nature. Every other weekend, a group of us would head off somewhere new: one weekend we went to the Sahara Desert or Chefchaouen, and we even found time to visit the Spanish region in Africa (to keep my Spanish up while studying Arabic). There was a real sense of adventure, seizing what time we had, and utilising the train network, which helped us travel around the country easily and at an affordable price. They also had old Mercedes taxis that 6 people could squeeze into to travel from place to place for even less, although this wasn’t quite as comfortable.
I think of my time in Morocco as an incredible experience. The teachers we had were friendly, always ready to help, and the classes were small. They had a relaxed atmosphere while still being informative and academic. Our language school offered free tutoring every day so we could see these tutors if we were ever stuck, and I thank them for helping me improve my accent. At times, I felt frustrated by the level of disorganisation with administration, but you get used to the way of life. However, thanks to the school, we had some amazing opportunities, such as meeting somebody who used to work in Parliament. He has written over 100 books and is currently aiming to get into the Guinness Book Record for most books written. He invited us into his home, a beautiful Moroccan riad in the centre of the souq, which was a rare experience and a great example of my words on Moroccan hospitality.
In terms of cultural differences, women are supposed to cover their shoulders and knees in Morocco. It is not a law, but I dressed like this because I wanted to respect the customs of the country and feel less like an outsider. This dress code never actually bothered me because it just felt part of the custom, and I ended up buying clothes I would not normally have bought. Of course, in Marrakech for example, tourists wear shorts all the time, but I felt more comfortable covering my shoulders and wearing trousers and I felt it helped me blend in more and feel more at home in the city. Another cultural difference is the street harassment that women experience. Unfortunately, this is a given if you are going to visit Morocco; you can ignore it, but sometimes it would be tiring after a long day and put you in a bad mood. However, spending time with friends out there always perked me up again. Our Moroccan friends would always shout at whoever gave us unwanted attention, teaching us phrases to use.
While there is not a whole lot for young people to do in Rabat, we found a fun event on Mondays called the Jam Café, where people our age performed. This was the highlight of my week. Apart from this, there was a more limited nightlife than St Andrews, but this did not matter too much as it meant we could work during the week and then travel in our free time together. We all made local friends at the language café who showed us around Rabat, and this was good speaking practice!
Surprisingly, Arabic is not the main language spoken in Morocco; they speak French and their own dialect called Darija. This is different from Arabic and native Arabic speakers can find it difficult to understand. Because of this, I found it tough to communicate, which felt isolating. It wasn’t easy talking to people on the streets, especially in shops if I had a problem, and so I never felt fully settled in, but luckily our Moroccan friends would step in to help fix any language barriers we had.
Naturally, on a year abroad, you are going to miss St Andrews and things like the nights out, but you must remind yourself that it will all be there next year and you are experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was definitely difficult seeing events on social media that I was missing out on, but the hot weather in Morocco was a major plus, and it helped whenever I missed St Andrews because I would hear friends complain about how cold it was while I was working on my tan. I also took Arabic calligraphy classes and had a surfing class to make up for the lack of nightlife.
For people wanting to go on a year abroad, I would recommend joining Facebook groups, such as ones for expats, to see if they offer things to do and to help with the language barriers of local dialects. Keep yourself as busy as possible and do the touristy things while you can, otherwise you will never get around to it. I would also advise you to say “yes” to as much as you can. From this experience, I have adopted a new attitude on my current semester abroad by saying yes and getting out as much as possible to experience new things. Also, you should talk to people who have been abroad to where you are going as this was how I found out everything I needed to know.
I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity and I’m glad I pushed myself out of my comfort zone, as I am sure I would have always regretted it otherwise. You get out of an experience as much as you put in. I have left Morocco with a sense of pride knowing I have lived abroad alone, improved my Arabic and my pronunciation, and gained a group of friends from all parts of the world. I will cherish and look back on this year as being a fulfilling experience during which I learnt a lot. I hope to return soon!