Studying abroad at JMU


by Claudia Vigue

International Exchange Students

Welcoming. Joyful. Opportunistic. These are the words that first came to mind when exchange students Rimona Tawil and Meriem Msilini described James Madison University. Both students spent the spring semester of the 2022-23 academic year studying abroad at JMU under the Tomorrow’s Leaders Program. Meriem is originally from Tunisia and studies full time at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, and Rimona is from Syria and studies full time at The American University in Cairo, Egypt, and, thankfully, both took on a special adventure at JMU.

The Tomorrow’s Leaders Program is part of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), funded through the U.S. Department of State. This program offers scholarships to undergraduate and graduate students from the Middle East and North Africa. Eligible students gain the unique opportunity to earn a degree at a university in the region and study abroad for a term in the United States. Meriem knew from the start that this scholarship would help her succeed in pursuing her academic goals in political science and the media.

“When I was at LAU in Lebanon, I knew I wanted to apply to a semester abroad,” Meriem explained. “I was the most excited about this. To go to another continent and one I always wanted to go to and explore myself and my interests. I was super excited about it and I couldn’t wait to come here.” 

When it came to Meriem’s decision process on where to study political science in the United States, she was torn. Online research and comparing other universities helped with this big decision. Even more so, Meriem was moved by the feeling she had when exploring JMU online.  

“I'm an idealist. I always wanted to change the world and make an impact. I liked the vibe of JMU. It was great. Honestly, when I came here, I thought Americans were going to be mean. I didn’t know what to expect. When I came here I was so shocked. Everyone was so nice and I loved it. I also liked the political science department a lot, so that’s why I’m here.”

On the other hand, Rimona wants to go into medicine. She’s also a twin and her parents had to find a way financially for both daughters to attend college. Luckily, Rimona came across the Tomorrow’s Leaders scholarship on Instagram and applied right away.

“I’m a Biology major and taking the pre-med track. I knew JMU was known for its Biology program and its medical field. When I saw this, it was my first option right away because I knew the courses here are so good. I wanted to continue my medical degree in the United States and saw this as an opportunity.” 

Studying abroad on a different continent isn’t easy. Meriem and Rimona say to prepare for the unexpected, in a good way. “Wherever you come from, your culture is going to be different from American culture,” said Meriem. “Even if you watch 100 movies and look up countless celebrities online, the culture shock will be real. If you keep yourself open to new experiences and try new things, you will totally be fine.” 

Meriem suggests getting out of your room, going out as much as you can, and joining all the possible activities. “Put yourself out there,” she said. 

Rimona put herself out there and participated in the Alternative Spring Break program. “Alternative spring break was amazing. I went to the Cumberland Islands in Georgia. We went camping there and it was my first time camping ever. I’m not going to lie, the first night was very hard because it was raining a lot and we weren’t prepared for that. After that, it was so much fun. We swam a lot at the beach and we saw alligators.”

Rimona and Meriem both have found their time in the United States and at JMU to be rewarding, even if it wasn’t what they expected. “I really like my time here a lot. Definitely not what I expected. We have a specific view of the U.S. where I’m from and we’re so exposed to pop culture, movies, and tv series. I had a specific college image in my head. I didn’t think Harrisonburg would be this way. I’m very happy. I love Harrisonburg. I love the community here. It’s so diverse. Everyone is extremely welcoming and everyone has the right amount of curiosity about where I’m from.” Meriem said. 

Studying abroad allowed Meriem and Rimona to develop as global citizens through a challenging and fulfilling experience that ultimately led to personal and academic growth. They encourage others to be open to an international experience and push yourself out of your comfort zone. In doing so, you can get to know other people and cultures, while you get to know yourself.  

“Even though I made so many friends here, the start of my experience of observing another culture made me introspect a lot. The beginning of this experience was more about me discovering things by myself. It made me okay with discovering things on my own,” Meriem described. “It made me more confident. Any achievement, even if small, felt like a big achievement. You connect with people, you join clubs, you have fun, you help people and volunteer. Any small achievement was the center of the world and the center of your experience. You become more grounded and more aware of what’s happening around you.”

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Published: Thursday, May 4, 2023

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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