New Life, New Spirit

Jalel Guesmi, a Fulbright FLTA from Tunisia, reflects on his linguistic and cultural experiences as a first-time visitor to the United States and Ursinus.

Finally and fortunately, after long hard work and perseverance, my dream came true. I had my terms of appointment with me and I was officially matched with Ursinus College to serve as the Teaching Assistant of Arabic in the Modern Languages Department.

“Wonderful and so green,” said my father, Allah bless him, when he saw the web site pictures of Ursinus.

Overwhelmed and happy, I had to take a temporary leave and say goodbye to my elementary school students and to my colleagues.  I was ready to join the other few Tunisian FLTA selectees to experience a new life with a new spirit in the United States, the dream destination for many people around the world.

Jalel Guesmi, Fulbright TA from Tunisia

Jalel Guesmi, Fulbright TA from Tunisia

I left my home in Tunisia in the middle of July and flew to San Francisco to attend the Fulbright FLTA summer orientation in Stanford University. I arrived at my host institution on the 16th of July. The aim of the multicultural orientation was mainly to provide TAs of different languages with tips about the American educational system, policies and cultural mannerisms and the essential things that a non-American should know to understand people and to be understood.

But despite that, I have many stories to tell about my own culture shock and losing confidence in my English, which I had thought would be good enough to interact with people and speak my mind.

At Ursinus, I was hosted and welcomed by Paula Alvarez, the Study Abroad and International Students Advisor, who arranged everything for the sake of Ursinus TAs’ comfort and ease and who took me for that wonderful dinner. I loved Ursinus, it delighted me. Collegeville is such a lively and endearing Philadelphia suburb. Since then, I have grown to feel that it is native to me and I have become very attached to it.

I like Ursinus for being a liberal arts college. I like the idea that students should have the chance to choose a variety of both scientific and artistic courses, in which they are taught how to integrate the skills they gain to succeed outside school. The curriculum is well-designed, interactive and essentially professionally oriented. The college is relatively small, but provides great services to students. It is compact, but has many useful facilities for learners. Learners can meet teachers and seek help about difficult parts of the curricula after classes. Upon hearing of Liberal Arts College characteristics like these, I have heard students from larger universities say such things as that they cannot experience such benefits with crowds of students clamoring for attention from busy teachers in the huge lecture-style classes of their colleges. If I were asked to mention the three things in Ursinus I like the most, I would say they were the passionate classical architecture furnished with up-to-date equipment, the campus discipline met by students committed to creativity and finally, the large sports fields decorated by prizes and ornaments: proof of Ursinus success.

Jalel Guesmi, Fulbright TA from Tunisia

Jalel with members of the Ursinus Modern Languages Department

One experience I will not forget is my first burger in Pennsylvania. A friend drove me to King of Prussia Mall after my proposal to go explore the shopping center. My friend had said, “we are ordering five guys.” I was totally perplexed. I was wondering, ‘how many guys are we, two or five?’

I turned back to see if there were people on the line. We were only two and not five guys! I said to my friend; “Did you order for five guys? Is the man going to make 5 burgers?”

My friend was exasperated! He explained to me that he was talking about the name of the restaurant. That was the point when I realized that my language skills, although advanced, left me woefully unprepared for the particularities of the American dialect. People here speak very fast and the kind of language they use is totally different from what I used to learn in school. It is a whole different culture.

At first I was tongue-tied. I had a difficulty in expressing myself. In an attempt to learn more about spoken English, I have been looking for opportunities to rub shoulders with American students to pick up the language. One day, I was asked ‘’Wwhat are you guys up to?”

I replied that I live up on the second floor of Musser.  Alas, my focus was on the preposition ‘up.’

Now, I can feel how embarrassing that was. I was slow to translate the words and I could not understand the meaning because my first language was always interfering. More hilarious examples of unexpected answers are ‘’Not much’’ for ‘’what is up?’’ and ‘’ I am good’’ usually for ‘’How are you?’’

I wonder all the time if speed in English a natural linguistic aspect of the language, or if it is due to psychological factors like people being in a hurry and on busy schedules all the time. I started to get used to American English when I took classes and found myself immersed in the ‘’linguistic pool;” listening to people, talking to them and analyzing how they speak and interact spontaneously.

I liked the American campus life as much as I did the classroom setting where I was thoroughly exposed to the culture. In the Modern Language Department, professors made me feel comfortable. They would come to me shake my hand and ask me about my country of Tunisia. They would show their interest in the Arab culture, history and especially the politics. I did not have an advisor before, but now Dr. Shuru listenis to my concerns. She gives advice and looks for solutions that help me in my particular situation as both an international student and a TA.

With the first semester over, everybody had a family to go back to, but TAs did not. To my luck, I had a big family of TAs from all over the world: people I met in Turkey during the pre-departure orientation, and others I met in Stanford during the summer orientation. We were all eager to see each other again. I was counting the days until I would travel to Washington D.C., to eventually see the White House and Congress and take photos.

The Fulbright mid-year conference was held at the end of the first semester in Washington D.C. for four days. This was one the greatest events of my entire experience here. The FLTAs gathered with their program officers, U.S. State Department representatives and other program alumni to appraise and celebrate our experiences so far. The meeting’s aim was to bring people from different parts of the globe together, with a mingling of different cultures and ethnic and religious backgrounds. The meeting, indeed, was aimed at nothing less than uniting a group compromising unbelievable diversity during a single mid-year conference. On top of that, the goal was to connect them to networks of people far beyond the program.  2013 was an exceptional year for me. I was in Times Square during the ball drop on New Year’s Eve! I fortunately was one of the thousands of people coming from all over the world to feel that moment—when all hearts are paused waiting for a new year full of success and prosperity.

With UC students, I participated in various activities and events. As a Fulbright cultural Ambassador, I have almost always been present in the different cultural activities held. In addition to what I teach in my classes about the Arab culture, I represented my culture through my daily communication with the people around me.

Every time an issue is raised, I was there to offer my unique perspective. It was deeply gratifying to feel how interested people are in Islam, as a religion and a theory of life. As a member of the Muslim Students Association, I was invited for an Interfaith retreat at Pendle Hill Center and contributed to the discussion about Islamic culture. I shared my view of ‘’Becoming’’ as a process of achieving “Humanity’’ through self-abnegation and love for others, through communication and peace between countries, and finally through the ongoing thirst for knowledge. Attendees liked the idea and expressed their willingness to know more. I am planning another event to take place by the end of this semester. I will schedule a kind of cultural exhibition in the Modern Languages Department and I will invite students and faculty to see samples of traditional clothing items, postcards, maps food and music of the Arabic-speaking countries.

As a non-degree seeking exchange student at Ursinus College, I joined many student activities. We went for trips to Philadelphia museums, and we were even introduced to the Philly cheese steak, which I must say is fantastic. We also went for a winter trip to pick organic apples from a local farm. I had the chance to attend a basketball game of the 76ers in one of the biggest and most famous sports leagues in the United States. It was hilariously fun! Moreover, I enjoyed going to the Ball of Bellevue to experience the annual event where American students dress up formally. This was just wonderful. As a member of UC bike share, I and other TAs went for a wonderful ride around the suburb of Phoenixville. It was memorable since the trail was through nature and alongside rivers.

Engaging is the Fulbright program and inspiring is Ursinus College. Fascinated with American campus life extracurricular activities and varied curriculum, I came to terms with the meaning of achievement. During my stay, I wrote a couple of articles that could be published in the Student Magazine in addition to other academic papers that I published online on ESL teaching websites and forums.  I can see that I have latent abilities and I am able to achieve. I concluded that it is the place that makes man and provides the conditions for success. Everybody is destined to be successful as long as circumstances are there. Now I am working on an independent research in the Education Department with Dr. Spencer. I wish this will be of good use for me as an Elementary school teacher back home and as a member of the newborn Tunisia TESOL. I have chosen to work on ‘’Motivation and Metacognition among Learners” because, to my mind, it is all about motivation and the skill to motivate people to kindle their latent powers and skills.

Now thinking about going home after this wonderful experience, a mixture of feelings of excitement and nervousness is out of control. I am certainly waiting for the moment to see his family members and friends again, to share with them the native daily life. But with my inclination and yearning for achievement and aspiration are enormous, I feel nervous about leaving a favorable milieu of research.

I also feel sad to say good bye to my friends and neighbors the TAs with whom I experienced the good and the bad. It is really heart-wrenching to leave American friends who became part of my life. I will be an Ursinus alumnus. I will be there to share my souvenirs and thought with the rest of friends who the majority of them are now seniors and soon, we will all be alumni. Finally, I will be dedicated to bring back home all the expertise and knowledge I acquired through to the Fulbright program, and invest that in my work as a teacher. And it will certainly be of good use for any form of non-governmental organization.

6 thoughts on “New Life, New Spirit

  1. I think you successfully described this amazing experience very sensitively and accurately. Congratulations on a wonderful academic year, wish you all the best!!

    • Thanks Dai :) . I cannot believe the year is almost over and everybody is going to be back home !! We really enjoyed being in Ursinus, and we will certainly love it forever. We will remember every single moment here.

  2. Wow Jalel, what an awesome article! It is so interesting to hear your stories! Glad you enjoyed Ursinus! I think you should be added as an Arabic Professor for next year! :)

    • Thanks Matt for the nice words.I just wrote what I really felt. Actually, to be in a different place drives you eventually to question lots of assumptions starting by looking for who you are and more basically what you are capable of. My experience here has taught me the much and people around me have continually been inspiring me a great deal.

  3. Your articles are more beautiful, interesting, and eloquent than anything I could write, and English is my first language! Congratulations on a wonderful year- it was so nice to read about all your experiences :)