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NewsFeb 5, 2020

Study abroad trip brings students face to face with international immigration crisis

Journey to Spain, Morocco prompts action at home, and examination of cultural norms

Cream building at night. Appears to be in Morocco.
Above: A snapshot from Tetouan, Morocco, of the Royal Palace and Place Hassan II.

Witnessing children and adults parade down the streets of Granada, Spain, in blackface for the Three Kings holiday was jarring for senior Shemeka Maxwell, and she had questions for the locals. Didn’t they know that was extremely racist?

But their puzzled responses led her to realize that the United States and Spain have very different ideas and experiences of race, and to ask: “How do I become a global citizen and not just a global learner?”

That was the exact question Associate Professor Amy Gooden wanted her students to explore as they studied immigration, culture and education during a 15-day trip to Spain and Morocco in January.

“It’s not a study tour where you look at people from the outside. The experiential learning design of the course I conceptualized offers students insights into the local perspectives of the culture,” said Gooden. “I would hope this course helped our students to see the human face of migration and combat the destructive narrative that prevails about immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in general.”

An alley in Chefchaouen, the blue city in Morocco, steps and walls painted bright blue
Many sub-Saharan African immigrants and refugees aiming for the hope of a better life pass through Chefchaouen, Morocco, known as the Blue Pearl City, to get to the northern Spanish border towns of Ceuta and Melilla. 

During the intensive trip, students spoke with government officials who regulate immigration, heard from nonprofits that advocate for immigrants, and met with sub-Saharan African refugees who shared their harrowing immigration stories.

Inspired by her own study-abroad and field research experience in the region 21 years ago, Gooden had the “wild idea” of planning this trip, knowing its social justice theme would complement Lesley’s mission. She admits the subject matter was weighty but wanted her students to come away with a global perspective on the power, privilege and intersectionality that affect immigration and education in that region.

The combined subject matter and length of the trip made it a unique opportunity for Maxwell, a liberal arts major focusing on psychology and sociology. With a 13-year-old son and a full-time job as the program director of Arcadia Learning Academy in Dorchester, she said, “The thought of study abroad was never something I thought I’d be able to do.”

In addition to gaining new insight into understanding other cultures, one of the most memorable parts of the trips for her was traveling to the African continent as a woman of color.

“We’re here,” she thought on the boat trip that the group from Spain to Morocco. “We’re here in the motherland.”

That was also a poignant realization for DeAndre Dymski, a senior business major.

“Morocco had always been calling my name,” he said. “It was just magical, mystical.”

Group photo
Córdoba, located in Andalusia, Spain, was an important Roman city and a major Islamic center in the Middle Ages. Here, the group stops on a medieval bridge on the way to La Mezquita, which Gooden said is one of the world's most unique mosques, due to the fusion of religious and cultural influences.

The opportunity was invaluable for Dymski, who was struck by firsthand accounts of immigrants attempting to cross the Spanish border and the death of many in the “liquid cemetery” of the Mediterranean Sea, as well as images of migrants storming the barbed-wire fence on the Spanish-Moroccan border.

“It’s basically what Trump is trying to do in Mexico,” Dymski said.

The experience has prompted him and Maxwell to find ways they can respond to the immigration crisis in the United States.

Dymski wants to foster more understanding and open dialogue.

“One person can think a certain thing and another can think something else. It doesn’t make anyone wrong,” he said.

As a result of the trip, Maxwell has already begun to change how she interacts with immigrants in her workplace. When possible, she calls interpreters to help her communicate with parents who don’t speak English, and she is trying to make the academy where she works more inclusive for non-English speaking students.

She also wants to teach her son to be tolerant of others’ ideas and cultures.

“That’s the biggest thing I think I can do: education,” said Maxwell.