Study abroad student sees through a new lens

January 30, 2024
Cat Cutillo
Social Media and Community Content Specialist

Isabella “Bella” Cronin ’25 said she remembers sitting in her Whitefield, New Hampshire, classroom in middle school when she first learned about the Syrian refugee crisis. Now, a junior at Saint Michael’s College, she reflected to that moment again as she explained what it was like to see the Za’atari Refugee Camp in person, the world’s largest camp for Syrian refugees. 

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Cronin returned to St. Mike’s campus this semester after studying abroad in Amman, Jordan, through SIT Study Abroad. She visited Za’atari five or six times during her time abroad while she interned with an NGO (non-governmental organization) that ran a clinic at the refugee camp. She learned about the sexual and reproductive health services that the clinic offered women.  

Cronin is an International Relations major at Saint Michael’s College and has three minors in Peace and Justice, Philosophy and Ethics, and Health Equity.  

“One of the things that stuck with me my first visit was just how positive the attitude is of the people who live there,” Cronin said. “A lot of kids would wave at us, and they would smile.”  

She added, “I think going there and having these firsthand experiences that was instilled will remain incredibly powerful.”  

Four weeks after she arrived for her study abroad experience in Jordan, an armed conflict erupted on Oct. 7, 2023 between Israel and groups of Palestinians led by Hamas, a political and military organization governing the Gaza Strip. Jordan shares a border with Israel and the West Bank, and Cronin’s cohort, which was comprised of seven other students from around the country, was planning to fly to Switzerland that day.  

Cronin said that the things they were seeing in real time began to impact the way she and other students and instructors approached their education – and the overall study abroad experience.  

“I think there are some elements of the things that we saw that I wouldn’t have even begun to think about,” Cronin said, 

She added, “It changes your perspective. You think about, ‘What resources am I using? What people am I getting my information from?’ I, personally, have become more intentional about where I’m getting my news from.”.  

Cronin said she’s changed her media consumption and now reads news outlets that are based in the Middle East and Gulf Region. For her internship, she wrote her final paper “on Gaza and the aid restrictions set by Israel going into Gaza, and the attacks on aid workers on the ground, including medical personnel and hospitals.” 

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“Every day we would open our computers and read the news… We would ask questions together to our program director, who was the person teaching most of our classes,” Cronin said.  

She added “One of the things I learned… Ask the questions. A lot of times you won’t get an answer. Ask the questions anyway.” 

 Cronin’s program, itself, was organized and run by women. She said the people of Amman were kind and welcoming. 

“I felt safer in Amman, even at night, than I do in Boston or New York during the day,” she said.  

She said she dressed “a bit more conservatively” wearing long skirts and neutral colors, but she did not cover her hair. 

While there, Cronin lived with a host family that was comprised of a mother, father and three host siblings, ages 12, 14, and 15. As an only child, herself, she said the new experience of having siblings was a lot of fun and that she misses the family a lot since her return to campus this semester. Her host parents spoke Arabic and English, and her host siblings were studying English. Cronin took a “Survival Arabic” course while abroad and her host mom and host sister would help her with her homework. She said most people she encountered spoke English. 

Cronin said the experience in Jordan has also helped boost her class participation here on campus this spring. 

 “The purpose is to see certain things through a different perspective and a different lens and that was definitely achieved for me,” Cronin said. “It definitely changes you as a person. I think, for me, it was a very positive change.” 

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