- Nia Alexander Campbell
Boldly Go (The Finale to My Qatar Adventure)
A layout of the situation I was in immediately before coming to Qatar
How I felt when I first entered Qatar
The things I experienced while I was in Qatar (school, emotions, & studying abroad)
Looking back on my time in Qatar (what I’m proud of, reflections of Qatar vs. the U.S., & what I learned about myself)
A wrap up of why the experience was undeniably “worth it”
One of my favorite photographs I took of Doha. This is at the Corniche on evening.
Ah, we’ve made it to the last post in this collection about my 2018 semester exchange experience in Qatar. Every good story has an ending, right? I’m reminded of those Dear America books I loved as a kid and how my favorite part of every story was the Epilogue. Despite my 9 year-old braid mentally pronouncing “Epilogue” as “Epologie”, I understood what it meant: It was the flash forward through time and space that told you the fate of the characters you’d spent the last 100 pages falling in love with.
Although, I safely assume you haven’t spent the past 35 posts falling in love with me. I also realize that perhaps this isn’t exactly an epilogue because my story not only continued after this but is still being written in vivid permanent ink. Perhaps this is more like a To Be Continued kind of epilogue, similar to the end of a Marvel movie, where the main story wraps up but is part of a larger web of interlinking tales, bridged together through a series of cameos. That’s what it feels like having written all these posts; it’s like I’m living in the bigger picture but can only shed light on it one cameo at a time.
I suppose that at the end of the day, this post is just meant to give me a bit of closure, and lord knows I love me some closure.
So, what are we waiting for, a post-credit scene? Let’s get to closin’! How about we start back at the beginning . . .
Before I Came to Qatar
The skyline at night, across the Corniche.
I had just returned home from my first international trip (and plane ride) in May 2017. I went to Morocco, which is where I met students and faculty from VCUQ. They were the ones who encouraged me to apply to the exchange program.
I began preparing for the exchange program in May, claiming my acceptance four months before I could even apply (and eight months before I’d be arriving).
I was told that the semester I applied to the program was extremely competitive, which made me nervous. I genuinely thought I wouldn’t get in, that I somehow wouldn’t be up to snuff. However, only four students went on Exchange that semester, even though we could have had up to six. Upon later reflection, I bet it was “competitive” in comparison to previous semesters, some of which had numbers as low as two students applying.
I was in my 3rd year of undergrad, but my credits resulted in my academic standing being that of a Senior.
I was 20 years old, and at the time of my arrival in Qatar, just two weeks shy of turning 21.
Some people back home didn’t quite understand where Qatar was or what it was like. No one in my circle—family or friends—had either never been to Qatar or had never heard of it. That in mind, it makes sense for them to get some information wrong here and there, but some stuff they said was way out there. Some people thought I was in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, other people thought Qatar geographically bled over into Iraq or Afghanistan, and some people genuinely thought I was in Africa. Others also had an odd understanding of Qatar as a developing country (instead of the wealthiest country in the world). I’m not judging them; after all, you don’t know what you don’t know until someone points out you don’t know it. However, I do think it illustrates the sort of not-too-worldly environment I was coming from.
June 2017 marked the beginning of the GCC Diplomatic Crisis (also referred to as the “Qatar Diplomatic Crisis”, the “Qatar Crisis”, the “GCC Crisis”, the “blockade”, and the “embargo”). To severely summarize the situation, some of the countries surrounding Qatar decided to stop trading with them, stop Qatari citizens from entering their countries, and stop Qatari transportation (like planes and ships) from entering their space. Having that this happened only a few weeks after I decided I wanted to study in Qatar, I was concerned that this issue would screw up my game plan. As you can see, it didn’t; in fact, VCU didn’t make any mention of it when it came to the Exchange Program.
I had someone who cared about me suddenly say that they “still don’t understand how going to Qatar would help with my career goals”. This statement immediately hurt in its seemingly black & white dismissiveness, and to boot, I doubt they even knew what my career goals were (after all, I was still trying to figure this out for myself). I mention it because the support I had when it came to studying in Qatar felt distant at times.
You want to know what I told this person, though? I told them that an experience abroad—in any capacity—can be applied to any career because it’s too rich an experience to not shape every aspect of your life. It can inspire you, change the way you think, help you forge relationships, and show you avenues & opportunities that you didn’t even know existed. In short, the applicability of studying abroad to your “career goals” are endless. So, if anyone says to you that they don’t see how your desire for an international adventure is relevant to what you believe you want to do in life, don’t let the thought alter your decision.
When I first entered Qatar
The first time I saw palm trees was in Morocco. Qatar was my second time seeing them and, wow, there were so many. And that swirly building in the background? That the Fanar, the Islamic Cultural Center.
The experience immediately had an air of magic around it. I specifically remember the multicolored lights lining the street to the airport; those lights were the first (very blurry) photograph of Qatar I took on the ground. To say I was “excited” would be both an understatement and slightly inaccurate… I felt much more than that.
While I was in Qatar
The only photograph of me at VCUQ’s 2018 Senior Showcase
As far as school is concerned, I felt like I was pushed & challenged, and given attention by faculty that genuinely seemed like they wanted me to grow as both an artist and a person. This was unlike the arts environment I had just left at VCU-Richmond, where only three art teachers—out of eleven—ever seemed willing to give me the energy I was willing to put into my own education . . . and even then, I still wasn’t challenged in the way I was at VCUQ. I was pleasantly surprised and very grateful to never have received complete dismissal when working on a project, bizarre avoidance of my artist’s statement during critiques, or the vague & not-so-helpful advice of “keep doing what you’re doing” . . . the kinds of experiences I had received at VCU.
More often than not, I felt more respected as a student, an artist, a woman, and a black person in Qatar than in the U.S. My experiences with my gender, race, spirituality, nationality, education, career aspirations—everything—was often vastly different—and usually better—than my experiences with these things in the U.S.
A pile of LEGO pieces in the Graphic Design department at VCUQ: Both a stress relief and a visual representation of where of my mind sometimes.
I sometimes felt overwhelmed. Culture shock, money problems, family stress, reevaluations of some relationships, and impromptu graduation plans were some of the things I was dealing with while in Qatar.
I didn't miss my family. People kept asking, so perhaps you’re wondering too. And the answer is no, I didn’t miss them. And that’s not coldhearted, that’s perfectly okay.
I forced myself to explore. I’ll admit that sometimes I overexerted myself and should have stayed home for my own wellbeing, but otherwise, I’m very glad about how much of Qatar I was able to experience during my short stay. For the first time in my adult life, I allowed myself to stop working for a while and experience other aspects of life during the time I would usually allocate for working. This was a big deal considering it required me to break a decade-long habit.
A shot from my desert photo shoot.
I learned things about myself—I got to know myself better—and I fell in love with the person I found. Some of the things I learned were small, like learning I liked wearing perfume, while other things were “big”, like learning I really enjoyed having “women’s only” options in most public spaces. And in getting to know myself better, I fell in love with that version of myself; I later realized that this was the first time I had ever felt an inkling of self-love.
I remember one specific moment where this feeling of “wow” in reaction to myself and my situation really struck me. On the surface, all I did in this moment was take a shower, but it wound up representing so much more. I recognized I had my own room and my own bathroom. I was able to turn down the lights so that they didn’t hurt my eyes. I had a shower with great water pressure & drainage with water that stayed hot for a very long time. I washed my hair, and let me tell you, the hair washes I had in Qatar were some of the best I’d ever had in my life (and one wash was even followed up by my first time using a hair dryer). I also remember seeing myself in the mirror and feeling like some sort of nature goddess. I felt feminine and beautiful and perhaps a little powerful, and I didn’t realize any of those feelings were something I cared about until this moment.
I also fell in love with another person, and as of right now, it is one of the healthiest, most loving relationships—romantic or otherwise—that I have ever had.
I found peace of mind. Though there were still a lot of things I was working through, my time in Qatar was the first time in a long time I felt . . . better. I wasn’t filled to the brim with unbridled happiness, but I did feel comfortable. For the first time in my life it felt like I fit well into an environment; I felt safe and respected, like I was in a space where I could breathe. The environment allowed me enough distance—both physical and emotional—to reflect on some things and start handling them down one bite at a time.
Looking back on Qatar
Souq Waqif at night
I’m proud to say that I didn’t bring too much of my baggage to Qatar. No, I don’t mean my literal baggage, I definitely brought a bit too much of that. What I mean is my mental and emotional baggage loaded onto me by my experiences in the U.S. (both on a personal level and the larger America-has-mad-issues level). See, because, no matter how open minded someone may be, I feel like they can’t help but bring their own baggage with them when they go abroad, especially if they’re new to experiencing life in another country. For example, as a black person coming from the U.S.—where racism was a norm that had always had a huge effect on my life—a part of me couldn’t help but expect the rest of the world to be like that. It was what I was used to and being able to spot it back home in the U.S. was an incredibly necessary part of life. Baggage like this from your home country can significantly effect an experience abroad, probably in a negative way, but I’m glad to say that I while I was in Qatar, I checked myself. I checked my baggage (lol, travel joke). What I mean is, when I was in a situation where my racism senses tingled, I’d pause for a moment and ask myself if I was reading the “racist” situation, comment, action, or person wrong. That split second of self-reflection made all the difference because 99% of the time, the situation wasn’t what I thought it was. Once those thoughts were out of the way, I was better able to learn, snatch up opportunities, and enjoy my time abroad.
Just to hammer in how important it is to check your baggage, I will tell you a story. There was another black American student who found something racist in an action that I felt was not discriminatory in the slightest. There was a group of us, a mix of faculty and students, riding in a golf cart to get back to the parking lot. This student and I wound up sitting in the back of the golf cart, in the open seats that face backwards. The student beside me suddenly said, “Why are we the ones sitting in the back?”, her tone clear suggesting this was a race-based offense. Thing is, the comment didn’t make sense to me; I sat back there because it looked like fun, we sat back there because we were in the back of the group and those were the only seats open by the time we got to the cart, and there was another black American faculty member sitting in the front of the cart. Throughout the semester, this sort of attitude from this student continued and ultimately screwed up some of the opportunities that were about to head their way.
But you know what? This golf cart situation was the exact moment when I began to question if I thought like this student too, if America had trained me to find discrimination in every action. Making that conscious effort to double check the way I interacted with people in Qatar made a world of difference because, at the end of the day, I was forced to recognize that Qatar’s discrimination issues are not that of the United States.
Me painting in my studio corner at VCUQ
I feel like I thoroughly experienced the “abroad” part of “study abroad”. The whole reason I was in Qatar was for education, so yes, school was important. However, I feel like it’s more important to milk the uniqueness of a study abroad experience, and what makes it unique is the fact you aren’t in your home country. Being busy in the studio, studying all week for an exam, working hard to get that degree (or, in my case, graduate suddenly), shouldn’t overpower the fact you’re seeing another part of the world. That said, I feel like I was able to balance work and adventure very well.
My first time seeing camels and my only time seeing them in Qatar.
I can better spot “dramatized Qatar” on television and sometimes it’s pretty funny. For example, when referencing Qatar as a hub for expensive artwork, the only image this documentary showed were Arab men in thobes & ghutras riding camels on the beach. Or, better yet, the show 90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way (on of my favorites, to be honest) had a couple that lived in Qatar. The only images they’d show of the country were camels walking across the highway, bird raisers in the middle of the desert, dhow boats on the corniche, and one shot of the colorful skyline. There was also a shot of Souq Waqif, where the only inhabitants of the scene were men in thobes and women in niqabs. I’m not saying that these sorts of scenes didn’t exist in Qatar, but I am saying that there exists a more, shall we say, well-rounded depiction of Qatar that the entertainment TV doesn’t quite catch (for obvious intentional reasons).
After living in Qatar, even for just a few months, I wouldn’t immediately associate Qatar with any of the things I later saw on television, which is why the images usually made me laugh. Personally, I associate Qatar with luxury, construction, and an into-the-future kind of modernism.
It was funny seeing how many VCUQ photographs I pop up in, like graduation photos and 20th anniversary pics. They popped up on everything from Instagram to online PDF documents, and I was still stumbling upon pictures of myself at VCUQ months after leaving Qatar. Every time I found one, it felt like I was in that last shot of The Shining, where the camera zooms in to find Jack in that group photo from 1920-something, and the audience is wondering How’d he get there?
It felt nice to be on the alumni mailing list. As many emails as I get from VCU-related organizations, I gotta say, something about getting emails from the VCUQ alumni association was just nice. I always opened those emails and read them in their entirety. To add, it felt extra special after officially graduating from VCU and realizing I wasn’t on any sort of alumni mailing list for PAPR or VCUarts, and the only alumni emails I got from VCU were just asking me for money. I suppose I felt more like I was part of a community in my 3 months at VCUQ than my 3 years at VCU-Richmond, and it was nice to feel that had continued through a simple mass email.
There’s something about a Tea Time karak cup half-buried in the sand beside a slab of concrete that just reminds me of Qatar.
I learned some differences between Qatar and the U.S. This seems like a given, like an obvious reason for studying abroad and natural result of seeing more of the world. However, when people point out these kinds of differences, they usually point out things like wall sockets, toilets, traffic, and food. Though, I noticed these differences in Qatar—especially when it came to the price of celery and size of fruit—the biggest things that struck me were social things. I learned that being black in Qatar wasn’t the same as being black in America, I learned the power of my American passport, and I became blatantly aware of migrant labor. I also learned that the GCC Crisis was not as scary as America made it seem (for the 2 seconds the country bothered to talk about it), and even better, I learned what it felt like to feel genuinely safe (in a dozen different ways).
So, was it worth it?
A photo of me in one of my favorite shirts, laughing beside some of my senior thesis paintings.
If you’ve read through all this, I’m sure you can guess my answer: Yes, it was worth it.
Getting accepted to the study abroad program was the first thing I had ever prayed nearly every night about. I wanted it more than anything else I’d ever accomplished and I think that in itself speaks volumes about how I felt about the adventure before even starting it. The experience I had in Qatar was one of the biggest surprises of my life and so many doors were opened by it. Academic doors, professional doors, relationship doors, and the all-important door of personal growth. My experience in Qatar cultivated my soul; it nurtured my feelings of independence and self-worth, and to experience this in such a safe environment, my confidence got boosted too.
Of course, Qatar wasn’t a paradise, neither objectively nor personally; the country still had its fair share of discrimination issues and I had to deal with things like culture shock and reevaluations of relationships. However, all in all, my experience in Qatar changed my life for the better, even in dealing with the difficult stuff. Because, at the end of the day, I experienced a lot of good things. I met people. I learned. I grew up. I graduated (more or less). I had the freedom to be myself. I traveled to two more countries while I was there. I was calm. I was adventurous. I was outspoken. I was able to live for a few months in a world without the American brand of oppression I was used to. I was offered opportunities I doubt would have come my way in the U.S. I forged probably some of the most significant relationships of my life.
For some reason, I’m reminded of this weird quote I wrote a while back about some of the things I encountered in Qatar:
"When Frosted Flakes are suddenly called Frosties, when you open a bag of croissants like a bag of chips, when you don't have grits and need old Bay, when you've never seen powdered detergent and buy the wrong thing, when prawn cocktail is a flavor is chip, when ketchup Pringles become your new favorite, when you learn it takes a whole hour for potatoes to bake in the oven, when you learn how to bake eggs because you can’t figure out how to use your fancy stovetop, when you can’t tell if your fancy appliances are broken or if you just aren’t using them right, when you learn Bolognese sauce is disgusting, when you're studying abroad on a ramen noodle every night budget, when wheat bread is called brown bread, when a foreign candy becomes your new favorite, when foreign-made American products taste better than they do in America, when American brands have more flavors here than they do back home, when Lipton sells a ready-made version of your favorite foreign tea, when your mom and gram mail you grits, when guava juice is your new favorite and is on every shelf, when you fall in love with pineapple jelly, when mayonnaise has a dozen different flavors, when you don't know what a poppadum is, when your weakness for Nutella and Pringles comes out, when you hate Pepsi in the U.S. but love it in Qatar . . . when it’s all part of the experience. Sometimes it’s frustrating, sometimes it’s confusing, sometimes it’s exciting, sometimes it’s beautiful, and often it’s surprising.
Me my first time in the desert after riding a mini dune buggy.
So . . . don't be scared. If you’re offered an opportunity like this, don’t be scared. Don't be scared of the long flight or the Middle East or the language or the food or the religion. Don’t even be scared of what your bank account is looking like, which I know can be hard to overcome, but sometimes you just have to go for the opportunity and figure out the rest later. Don't even be scared of things like an embargo; don’t get me wrong, you should definitely keep your eye on geopolitical squabbles and nearby civil wars, but if the waters look calm enough, go for it.
No, don’t just go for it, boldly go. Do something that you or your family or your community has never done before. Blaze trails, explore the world, explore yourself. Boldly go.
My 2018 sketchbooks on my studio table at VCUQ