Medill third-year Shannon Tyler faced several unknowns as she prepared to spend her Fall Quarter in Doha, Qatar. For one, she was going to be the only student at Northwestern University in Qatar coming from the United States.

The Middle East was a part of the world Tyler had never been to but was eager to experience. She had taken Arabic for about a year and a half, so she had some understanding of the language. But the week leading up to the program was nerve-wracking, she says.

As soon as she arrived, however, her worries quickly dissolved.

“It was probably one of the most welcoming places that I've ever been to,” she says. “Immediately when I got there, I was invited to dinners. I was invited to go see Doha.”

Between exploring Doha, traveling throughout the Middle East and making friends from around the world, Tyler’s semester in Qatar turned out to be unforgettable.

“That experience was definitely something that I am going to hold with me for a very long time,” she says.

And Tyler’s not the only one. In Fall 2023, over 600 Northwestern students studied abroad across six continents, according to Northwestern's Office of Global Learning.

Now back in Evanston, several Northwestern students who studied abroad in the fall say they came back with improved language skills, new perspectives from around the world and many lasting memories.

The language barrier

Weinberg fourth-year Sam Casey left the U.S. for the first time when he traveled to Vienna, Austria for Fall Quarter. He chose Vienna because he wanted to improve his German skills, he says.

Casey has taken German since high school and is pursuing a German minor alongside his political science major at Northwestern. So he went into the program with conversational skills and knowledge about the language. But he says the language barrier was still difficult to navigate despite having experience with the language.

“At first, I needed to use English a lot,” he says. “I could speak a bit but I wasn't confident at all.”

Weinberg third-year Lukas Cortes encountered similar obstacles during his Fall Quarter in Taipei, Taiwan. Cortes is majoring in Economics and History with a Chinese minor. He chose Taiwan because he wanted to pursue the language, he says.

“I only took Chinese for a year before studying abroad, so it was definitely challenging at first,” he says. “Mainly because everything was in Mandarin, especially in less urban areas.”

But Casey and Cortes both saw improvement in their conversational skills over the course of their programs as they took language classes and practiced the languages in their daily lives.

“I had to memorize a lot of stuff for daily life, like how to order a coffee or how to get on the train or how to ask a question relating to this topic,” Cortes says.

Both Casey and Cortes practiced their conversational skills with language partners. Casey was paired through the program with another student who was fluent in both English and German. They would meet up at a restaurant or cafe and just talk for a few hours about any topic, he says.

“By the time I left, I could confidently navigate and read stuff around [Vienna],” Casey says. “I could speak the language with some efficacy.”

Experiencing new cultures

Like language, cultural immersion is another key aspect of any study abroad program.

During her semester in Qatar, Tyler got to immerse herself in Qatari culture as well as cultures from around the world, she says.

“I was friends with people from all over,” she says. “And they would all just want to show me their home dishes and everything like that.”

Tyler spent a lot of time exploring Doha, a modern and vibrant city with a variety of cultures, she says. Because of the large migrant population, Tyler was able to find corners of Doha with incredible Nepalese, Pakistani and Indian food, to name a few.

Tyler recalled trying to navigate the souq, the downtown market, and taking boat rides out of the Doha Corniche.

“You kind of have to bargain with the people to get a good price,” she says. “But they would take you on the boat for 45 minutes or so to see the skyline, and you can play music.”

Like Tyler, Casey got to know Vienna well during his time there. His classes often went on excursions into the city, where he learned about the history and even got to see 2,000-year-old Roman architecture, he says.

“I would take what Vienna has over a modern American city,” he says.

Casey felt at home in Austrian culture, which he says was more laid back than American culture.

“They take their relaxing time very seriously,” he says. “Everything is closed on Sundays and holidays. They get more vacation time than us.”

Taiwanese culture brought similar surprises for Cortes. The specific cultural norms took some time to get used to – from where to stand in line for the subway to when to eat meals.

“There's just a lot of different cultural nuances, whether it's going to a Buddhist temple or meeting people from rural areas who may not have seen a white person before,” he says. “It's kind of jarring, interesting stuff to be a foreigner in a country like that.”

People and perspectives

Tyler made friends from all over the world while abroad, and she learned valuable lessons about friendship and love.

“With the fast-paced nature of college, it kind of seems like friendships can be all about what we’re doing this weekend, partying or whatever,” she says. “But I think there, life was much more slowed down and much more deep and full of connections.”

The “slowed down” nature might have to do with Middle Eastern culture, which emphasizes deep emotional connections, she says.

Cortes says his connections abroad stayed with him even after he returned to Evanston.

“I now have a group of friends and a network, if you will, of people that I have met [in Taipei] that I will always have,” Cortes says. “And yet they're so different from the people that I meet at Northwestern.”

Studying abroad not only introduced Cortes to new people, but also to new world perspectives.

Cortes says he was surprised by the way his European and Asian friends talked about the U.S. In many ways, they looked up to it and viewed it as the standard, whereas most Americans he knows are very critical of the country, he says.

Tyler also found new perspectives in her classes. In addition to journalism, she is pursuing a political science major. She took two political science classes in Qatar – the best ones she’s ever taken during her time at Northwestern, she says. One focused on the Arab uprisings. Her Doha Seminar, a required course for the Semester in Qatar program, focused on contemporary movements within the Arab world.

“They were both incredibly in-depth and had a lot of perspectives and conversations that honestly I haven't seen in most political science classes here in Evanston,” she says.

Tyler recognizes that Qatar isn’t the most popular choice for studying abroad – just two students studied there in Fall 2021 and three in Fall 2022, according to the Global Learning Office. But she highly recommends the Semester in Qatar program and exploring what the campus has to offer.

Many students get caught up in going to Europe or limit themselves to certain places, Cortes says. About 85% of students who studied abroad in Fall Quarter went to Europe, according to the Global Learning Office. But Cortes recommends the National Taiwan University Exchange program, especially for students who speak Chinese and want to pursue the language further.

“I think sometimes we get caught in a bubble at Northwestern,” he says. “And escaping that bubble for three months was pretty productive for mental health and understanding what's out there for people to explore.”

Reflections from Evanston

Now back on campus for Winter Quarter, all three students feel they grew over the course of their time abroad.

Cortes says he now feels more relaxed about school, realizing that there’s much more to life than just his grades. He also feels a new sense of maturity and independence, having learned how to budget money in a foreign economy.

“I'm not used to spending $2 on a meal,” he says. “So I had to really make sure that I wasn’t overspending at the same time.”

Cortes made lasting friendships abroad but also gained appreciation for his relationships in the U.S., he says. It was important for him to learn how to maintain those relationships while abroad.

After having to communicate in a foreign country, Casey says being back in the U.S. is like “playing on easy mode.” He says he feels a newfound confidence and ease in talking to people.

“Now, if I have to call and make a dinner reservation or if I have to tell the waiter I got the wrong order, I feel that's way easier to do than it used to be,” he says.

Evanston’s cold weather hit Tyler hard, a stark difference from Qatar’s heat. She misses her friends and watching the sunset over the desert, she says. But she’s now settled into Winter Quarter, keeping the lessons she learned in Qatar close to her.

Tyler plans to return to Qatar in the future, either to work or just to visit, she says. Casey also has plans to return to Vienna.

“I have to go back,” he says. “Hopefully a lot.”

*Editor's note: On March 28, 2024, NBN noticed that an outdated version of this story was published. We regret the mistake and have published the latest version.