A few months back, I received an email from Lehigh (my PhD program and where I currently work as an adjunct professor) asking if I would be interested in teaching an eight-day course on group counseling for master's students in Kuwait. I paused and took account of my reactions to this question. Isn't it dangerous there? Would I feel uncomfortable as a foreign woman in the Middle East, alone? How would I connect with students from such a different culture, and within a society that has very different views on mental health? My stomach was performing anxious somersaults imagining this experience. However, I also noted a familial tingle of excitement - a different part of me was reawakening - the part of me that loves a challenge, embraces having my comfort zone stretched, and thirsts for experiencing something new and different, especially related to culture and travel. After a week of pondering, I made the decision to go.
I am currently on my fifth day here in Kuwait. I am curled up on a couch in the lobby of my hotel, sunlight and warmth streaming in from the big windows overlooking the city. I am feeling utterly fulfilled and refreshed as a professor of these brilliant, brave, and complex students. I am also feeling enriched and enamored with this country, the beauty of Kuwait City, and the vibrancy of the culture around me.
I felt some culture shock when I first arrived here. Kuwait does not have a big focus on tourism - and it shows. The airport had minimal signage for people new to Kuwait. The public transportation system is also limited and difficult to grasp if you don't speak Arabic. There is no hop-on-hop-off bus or tourism offices to plan your visit. Thankfully, I had some help with a meet and greet service at the airport to help me get my visa sorted and to transport me to my hotel. Lehigh also made sure I had contacts both at home and here in Kuwait to make sure things ran smoothly. Upon arrival, I was immediately struck by how urban it is here - the city is packed with tall apartment buildings, endless high-end shopping malls, busy roadways, and enough honking to rival NYC. The buildings are varying shades of sandy beiges and browns, bedecked with the visages of the Emir, smiling and waving. While the city is, in theory, walkable, it is not always pedestrian friendly, and crossing streets can be an extreme sport.
On my second day, I got to meet two of my students who offered to take me out for coffee and dinner, and to show me around the city. While sipping on an iced matcha latte, I could already feel the warmth and generosity of the social climate. My students answered all of my questions about Kuwaiti culture, expressed curiosity about how it felt for me being here, and gave me great pointers on everything from how to cross streets without having my life flash before my eyes, to where to find top-notch knock-off perfumes at the Mubarakiya Souk (Arabic market).
My class includes nine students who represent as vast an array of cultural, religious, and lingual backgrounds as Kuwait City overall. Some hold very traditional and deeply held religious beliefs; others embrace more liberal and modern attitudes. Mental health here is in its infancy - there is deeply held stigma about mental illness and treatment for mental health problems. And yet, my students are defying stigma and opening themselves to learning about a topic that is not widely embraced within their culture. That takes courage.
A significant aspect of our course is having an hour long experiential group that takes place during each class meeting. Students rotate being group leaders, and student members are themselves - no role playing or acting. I led the first group, but since that initial meeting I have been a group member as well. As each meeting has occurred, I have been able to see my students learn how to let go of their anxiety about the unknowns of what will happen in group, embrace the beauty of organic conversation and connection, and dig deep to share parts of themselves that they tend to keep hidden. Due to their diverse identities, this means something different for each student - however each one has taken courageous steps to find and embrace those common threads that hold us all together. These common threads are woven through sharing laughter, speaking in our home languages and explaining cultural sayings, discussing cultural values that shape our experiences and perspectives, and holding together shared emotions of anxiety, sadness, isolation, joy, empowerment, and connection that reflect a universal language. We are creating a tapestry as a group that is intricately textured, patterned, and infinitely colorful.
I am already mourning the impending end of this teaching experience as it is already halfway to completion. However, I remain excited about where this journey will continue to go, and what other common threads will emerge along the way.
Dr. Bethany Detwiler is a psychologist practicing in Allentown, PA. She specializes in mood and relationship struggles. She also is an adjunct professor of counseling at Lehigh University.