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San Diego State University

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Art student draws inspiration
from an uncommon destination 

By Michael Klitzing

Sabrina Anderson was feeling sick, that’s the first thing she recalls. Still, she was determined not to let that fact deter her New Year ’s Eve celebration.

After all, she wasn’t about to ring in 2015 just anywhere.

Anderson – currently a senior at SDSU – had just completed a semester abroad in the United Arab Emirates, of UAE, and she stuck around a little longer to stay with a new friend from her public relations class and her family. As darkness fell over the Arabian Peninsula, Anderson shook off her illness and ventured with her hosts out into the desert to build a raging bonfire. As 2014 passed into 2015, they lit paper lanterns and watched them ascend against the night sky.  

“It was just so simple, and very fulfilling,” Anderson said. “I loved it.”

She loved it so much that she decided to memorialize the moment in a painting.

For Anderson, the semester she spent abroad in UAE gave her a new perspective on the world. It’s a perspective the budding artist now uses as inspiration to create – and to imagine possibilities for her future.

Anderson painting 


A bridge between cultures 

Have a look the jewelry Anderson creates and you’re left with the impression that she’s not from around here. The shapes employed by the studio art major – often mimicking the slopes of sand dunes or the curving lines of Arabic letters – look undeniably foreign to the Western eye.

“At the same time, if someone from the UAE were to look at it, they’d know I wasn’t from there either,” said Anderson, a native San Diegan whose unique work recently earned her the Ellamarie Woolley Art Students Assistance Scholarship. “I like that. I like being the bridge in between.”


Her experience bridging American and Arab cultures began almost the moment she arrived at SDSU. As a freshman, she befriended a group of international students from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Anderson was fascinated to learn about their culture, and the young men and women enjoyed the chance to teach their new American friend to speak a bit of Arabic.

They also inspired Anderson’s wanderlust, convincing her that she should visit Dubai – the Vegas of the Middle East, they billed it. It’s no coincidence that she chose Sharjah, a mere 15 minutes northeast of Dubai, as her study abroad location.

“Having (Arab) friends before going there made it kind of easier to step into it,” Anderson said, “but when I got there I learned so much more. How the women act or how to order food – everything that goes into being there is so much different than just having an idea about it. When I got there, I was surprised to see that there weren’t just Arabs, there were Indian and Pakistani people.

“Being a Muslim country, the lifestyle was Muslim and people respected the rules, but the people were from everywhere. So that was interesting.”

Anderson necklace 


New perspectives

As an artist, Anderson fell in love with the UAE almost immediately. Sights like the Dubai Miracle Garden and Heritage Village captured her imagination. And, as someone with a particular passion for fashion design, she found the customs for how women dress – something she admits to being a bit worried about before her trip – to be eye-opening.

“I didn’t think that covering my hair was something I would do, but I did try it,” she said. “I put on the dress and felt what it’s like to be covered in that society and how people treat you. I liked it – I liked it a lot. There’s something about being a covered woman in that country where you get really respected, everywhere.

“It’s weird because here we see it as a barrier, but there it’s more like respect. Men move out of your way and they give you everything you want in restaurants or wherever.”

She also felt a strong connection with what she found to be a simpler lifestyle. Unlike in the U.S., partying is generally not part of the equation for young people in the UAE, where alcohol is strongly prohibited.

There, a Friday night after class might mean horseback riding in the desert. Or drinking tea at a picnic.

“It’s a lifestyle that’s so fulfilling, but here we might not see it as fulfilling. ‘I’m just going to sit under a tree? Why would I sit under a tree?’” Anderson said, laughing. “But there’s it’s like, ‘Yeah, I want to sit under a tree. It’s the best thing ever.’”

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Embracing somewhere different

Often students can be apprehensive about choosing a non-traditional location, such as the Middle East, Africa, Latin America or Eastern Europe. But Anderson can attest that branching out and going completely out of your comfort zone can be extremely rewarding.

“In Western Europe, you’ll learn something about another culture, but it’s so close to us,” Anderson said. “You won’t really understand who you are as much as if you go somewhere completely different. You can really see who you are and find out how history has affected the way we grow up.”

Her newfound affinity for the UAE isn’t only evident in her art. Another indication is the fact that she’s already gone back. After a year of saving money, Anderson returned this past winter to see her friends and explore possibilities for returning in the future for work or graduate school.

“It’s a little hard because I haven’t seen the whole world – but I know that I love this place,” she said. “Not just the UAE, but the Middle East in general. I feel like I belong here.”

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