Students from around the world explain why they love the Arabic Year program at King’s Academy.
The founding of King’s Academy was based on a vision that its students would help to build bridges of understanding between the Middle East and the rest of the world. Arabic Year, one of the school’s earliest established programs, provides international students with an opportunity to get to know the real Jordan and the real Middle East. At the same time, the school’s Arab students are introduced to different outlooks on life through their international peers. As noted by His Majesty King Abdullah II, the school’s founder: “At King’s, [students] quickly discover how the differences between us enrich our experiences and broaden our horizons.”
With over 100 international students having enrolled in Arabic Year to date, and 80 percent of those students continuing to study Arabic or the Middle East after they leave, King’s and Arabic Year certainly seem to be succeeding in building those bridges.
Beyond King’s spoke with Arabic Year alumni to learn more about what made their Arabic Year experiences so memorable.
For some students, the pull of Arabic Year is the opportunity to learn an ‘exotic’ new language, while for others with ties to the Middle East or Arab roots, connecting with those roots by learning the language is what appeals to them.
“I didn’t know very much about the Middle East before coming,” said Taher Vahanvaty ’23, from the United States, who joined Arabic Year in 2019, and who enjoyed his experience so much that he decided to stay on at King’s for the remainder of high school. “AY is rigorous and it takes someone who is passionate about learning, but that is also why it is great because everyone with you is also excited about Arabic and is trying hard.”
Alesia Radzyminski ’21, from Chapin School in New York, who attended AY in 2018-2019, found learning Arabic challenging at the start but soon got a grip on the material. “I completely fell in love with the intertwined challenges and beauty of Arabic,” she says. “Learning Arabic was the most rewarding feeling because I could apply everything I had done in class to the outside world and really see the ways in which language enables deeper cultural understanding.”
“One of my favorite parts about learning Arabic was demystifying Arabic writing,” said Isabella Drzala ’18, who attended AY in 2018 for her gap year after graduating from The Pingry School in New Jersey. “I loved how Arabic text went, in my mind, from being foreign and merely pretty to actual words and letters. AY gave me a good basis to communicate with others.”
Living the culture and history
AY offers an authentic cultural immersion experience where, in addition to learning about Arab culture and history through lessons and over 20 different trips around the country and region, students interact daily with fellow students and teachers, many of whom are locals, and who often welcome them into the fold of their families.
“Some of my fondest memories include traditional Friday lunches with friends’ families,” says Radzyminski. “Also the AY spring break trip to Morocco was one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had.”
Josie Wender ’22, also from Chapin School, agrees.
“I loved the trips — Petra, Wadi Rum, Salt, the Citadel, so many places — they built upon my knowledge of the culture,” she says. “On one trip to Salt, we just walked around the markets and went into museums; we were using Arabic and speaking to people and it was so much fun.”
“The trips were very memorable,” concurs Katharina Von Maltzahn ’21 from Chapin School. “My favorite cultural experience though was learning how to cook Middle Eastern food through a cooking lesson in Amman.”
“My trip highlights were Wadi Rum and Dana Nature Reserve,” says Louisa Pilhatsch ’19 from Germany, who attended AY on a gap year in 2019. “Seeing the gigantic canyons, with their rough edges, the orange sand, camels and the sunrise — Wadi Rum just enraptures every visitor. Going to Dana right after, you wouldn’t believe you’re in the same country. We climbed lots of mountains and enjoyed a fabulous view over a green valley. Our tour guide made the experience complete. He was a Bedouin and, in half Arabic half English, he explained to us what it is like to grow up being a Bedouin in this area.”
The warmth of Jordanian hospitality
Jordan is famous for its hospitality. From the moment they arrive, visitors are made to feel part of the family, King’s AY students say.
“I felt incredibly welcome at King’s,” says Von Maltzahn. “From the moment I stepped on campus, all the students and teachers embraced me into the community and made sure that I felt comfortable in my new environment.”
“On my first day at King’s, staff, faculty and proctors were everywhere: showing you the way, helping you carry the luggage or just warmly welcoming you with a smile,” Pilhatsch also noted. “I was amazed by how faculty was already calling me by my name and invited me for tea in their apartments.”
“A standout moment for me was when we went to the Dead Sea and struck up a conversation with a resort staff member,” recalls Vahanvaty. “After five minutes, he was inviting us on his golf cart and giving us a tour. I realized then how friendly Jordanians are and the importance of being able to converse in Arabic and make connections no matter how small.”
Making lifelong friends
The biggest worry when moving to a new country and going to a new school, notes Pilhatsch, is making friends. New students soon find that the warm residential environment at King’s makes that easy.
“Within the first few days I realized there is no way you won't make any new friendships,” says Pilhatsch. “Since the student body is so international there is so much to find out and ask about. Today, I count friends from all over the world.”
Drzala says she is sure that the friendships formed during her year at King’s will last a lifetime. She also values the opportunity to get to know people from a different culture. “Whenever I meet Arabs around the world now, it is instantly easier to relate to one another once they find out that I lived in Jordan.”
Von Maltzahn also appreciated being able to get to know students outside of her AY group. “I was placed in various classes with no other AY students, which was so helpful because it allowed me to dive straight into socializing and getting to know people. I loved meeting new people and made really interesting new friends.”
Seeing the world through a new lens
For Von Maltzahn, AY gave her the opportunity to venture outside of her comfort zone and travel abroad to expand her outlook on the world. “I found that AY was the best fit for my interests and passions. I wanted to learn Arabic and was also very interested in Middle Eastern history and culture. AY helped me better understand the Arab world through conversations with the diverse student body and teachers and being able to travel around Jordan.”
Radzyminski feels similarly about her AY experience. “My time in Jordan changed my worldview completely. I became much more interested and invested in advocacy for the Arab and Muslim communities in the United States, and now have an Arabic Club at my school where I show my peers the beauty of a culture that I am very much attached to.”
“Having always been interested in international news and affairs, I wanted to experience the Middle East for myself,” explains Drzala. “I wanted to form my own opinions and judgements rather than learning about the Middle East through the news. AY has definitely changed my outlook on life. I have become more decisive as a person, I’m not as reluctant to put myself out there, and I’ve become more confident in my own abilities.”
Feeling safe and welcome
Jordan has been repeatedly ranked as one of the safest countries in the world, and for that reason, along with its famed hospitality, it is often listed among the top tourism hotspots.
“Though I had never been to Jordan before, I instantly felt safe and looked after and was stunned by the genuine and deep-rooted hospitality that I witnessed,” says Radzyminski.
Drzala wholeheartedly agrees: “I always felt safe. If anything, I felt safer in Jordan than at home. As a female, I was never catcalled or shouted at nor did I have to face any other forms of harassment that many women do in their daily lives.”
Wender already had a positive perception of the Middle East before coming to Jordan as her parents had visited the region and loved it. She knew, however, that many people didn’t share her viewpoint. “When I told people I was coming to Jordan, they’d ask if it was safe, mainly because of negative media portrayals of the Middle East. I’d tell them: ‘Yes! It’s safe. Just go, you’ll be fine. You will not regret it’.”
Hiwar and Hot Tea
After graduating from high school in her hometown of Bonn, Germany, Louisa Pilhatsch ’19 was looking for a gap year experience that would fulfil her dream of learning Arabic and traveling the Middle East when she stumbled upon Arabic Year at King’s Academy. Read what Pilhatsch has to say about her AY experience.
“Hearing personal stories when my Arab friends talked about political and social issues in the Middle East has been crucial to my better understanding certain situations in the Arab world today. I lived with Jordanians, Palestinians, Saudis and many more nationalities who were happy to share with me what it means for them to be Arab. I was encouraged to approach faculty or students to hear and discuss their perspectives over hot tea and Jordanian snacks during our weekly Hiwar (discussion).
Topics included Arab fashion, the question of honor, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the various forms of the dabkeh dance.
This program has taught me to become more open-minded to a new culture, different lifestyles and new perspectives. AY really offers what it promises: a cultural experience and Arabic fluency. Despite how people worried after telling them where I was going, I have never felt so safe anywhere than being a student at King’s Academy. The community did such a great job in always trying to make us foreign students feel at home and taken care of. Jordan is one of the safest places you can be. If you are searching for a life- changing experience in a foreign culture, if you dream of going on a new adventure that will broaden your horizons and shape you as a person, don’t let this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity pass you by.
Read more about Pilhatsch’s Arabic Year experience and other students’ testimonials on our website.