Africa in Our Lives: Tess Kolker

Tess Kolker is a current UW Junior studying for the year in Morocco.

Field of Study: International Studies, Political Studies
Hometown: Chatham, NJ

Tess riding a camel with friends.

What brought you to UW- Madison?

I visited Madison for the first time in January of my senior year of high school and was surprised to find such a bustling town with great spirit and so much to do. I was looking for a large school and a break from the East Coast and was decided that Madison was the place to be. I am so happy that I did.

Tell us one interesting fact about you.

I can touch my nose with my tongue! I guess that is fun? Kind of?

How did you make the decision to study Arabic?

I am incredibly fascinated with the political atmosphere throughout the Middle East and North Africa and wanted to study a language that would help me understand not only the people partaking in the politics, but also the culture and religion that sway the politics in more ways than one. I also studied both Spanish and Chinese in high school, and came to college looking to learn a different language that would also help me communicate with a large population of people all over the world.

What have been some of your most memorable moments while studying in Morocco so far?

Probably the most memorable moment of my time in Fes thus far was when I was walking through the medina to buy myself some malawi (a delicious greasy pancake-like bread) when I stumbled upon a huge parade celebrating Ashera, an Islamic holiday on the 10th day of the Islamic year. Hundreds of people were crammed into the alleyway I had been so many times, various bands were playing music on horses, people were dancing in large circles, and smiles were on everyone’s face. You could look up and see people perched on top of every roof – whether it was a terrace or not. It was the first time I felt a collective sense of joy and togetherness in Fes and I remember having not loved the city more than I had in that moment.

 What, if anything, has surprised you the most about Morocco?

What has surprised me the most is the wide spectrum of ways Muslim women dress. Prior to coming to Morocco I was asked by many people, mostly those who have never been to or studied Morocco, if I would have to cover my head. I knew that I would not have to, and that the most respectful thing I could do was cover as much skin as possible, mainly my shoulders and knees, will still being comfortable. When I arrived however, I saw Moroccan women without head scarves, and in fact in outfits that did not cover much skin at all. At the same time, there were women wearing veils that covered everything but their eyes. While this difference felt drastic to me upon arrival, neither woman was less Moroccan or less Muslim. This was just the first of many lessons about Morocco, and Islam, that I have learned on this trip.

What advice would you give students considering study abroad?

Study abroad, because it is a decision that you will never ever regret. Studying abroad in Fes has not been the easiest thing I’ve ever done, but the things I have learned about Morocco, the Muslim world, and myself have outweighed any doubt I may have had while here, and I’m only in month 2 out of 9! The most valuable lessons about the world come from traveling and experiencing new places and things first hand. Don’t set expectations and let the world surprise you.

What would you like to do after you graduate?

As a Political Science and International Studies, my career path is far from a given. However, as of now I would like to pursue a career with the US State Department, or perhaps at an intergovernmental organization. I am relying, maybe too heavily, on my internship this summer to steer me in the right direction in terms of specific sectors of international work I would like to do.

If you could bring one piece of your life in Morocco back to Wisconsin, what would it be?

In Morocco, people sit at coffee shops together, for hours upon hours sipping on coffee, talking, and enjoying each other’s presence. While these people are all on “Moroccan time”, one much slower than the concept of time we have in the States, this tradition is one that holds much value. There is something to be said about pausing our busy lives and simply being with our friends and neighbors to catch up and be present in each other’s lives. I think it would be beneficial to slow down every once in a while and take a few hours to just sit, away from obligations, and be present with those we care about.

Tess with friends overlooking the old medina of Fes