by Cesca Janece Waterfield
For thousands of college students in the Richmond area, it’s about time to return to classes and friends, and answer the question, “What did you do this summer?” For a world-travelling group of Virginia State University students, telling an exciting story will be a snap, thanks to a recent service learning trip to Rabat, Morocco in North Africa, where the students worked in an orphanage and a children’s hospital providing English instruction to Moroccan children and teens.
Omar Adams, a Senior majoring in English at VSU worked at Lalla Meryem Orphanage helping care for infants and teaching English. Omar has an older sister and sometimes he babysits for family members. But working with infants changing diapers, and feeding and bathing children was new for him. “That was quite an experience,” he admits. Omar, who has taken Arabic language classes for three semesters says, “The whole time, I was practicing my Arabic. A lot of people spoke English and you can get around with your French. But if you knew Arabic, it was really appreciated. You could see the glow in their eyes when you actually tried their language.”
Kevin Ealy, a Senior Psychology major, worked at the East-West Foundation Center in Rabat. “My assignment was to volunteer as an English teacher,” Kevin says. “I was teaching students from the Congo, some people from the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, just all over the southern part of Africa. It was good experience for us to go over there and get practice so that we can improve our own language or speak it more proficiently. I really appreciate [VSU] offering that kind of program.”
Cultivating Global Citizens
An increasing number of universities are offering education abroad programs to provide students hands-on knowledge of other cultures. This year, VSU received a federal grant to develop a program that will enhance its Arabic language program by providing an overseas service opportunity for students. Participants return with more than souvenirs and snapshots.
Dr. Maxine Sample, Professor of English and Director of International Education at VSU accompanied students to Morocco. “Having an immersion experience like this I think is very important to students developing a certain amount of cross cultural competence,” Dr. Sample says. “When you go into another country, suddenly you have to look at everything through the lens of the people who live in that culture. It’s a good opportunity for our students to learn what it means to be a global citizen. Part of your education is not just about what you can learn from a book or the classroom. It’s also getting what you can get by being engaged directly with other cultures. That’s something they can take with them for the rest of their lives.”
Planning Tomorrow’s Journeys
In preparation for the trip, students studied Morocco and its culture on campus. Then they spent two and a half weeks in Morocco with community agencies assigned to them. The combined classroom study and service projects earned each student six credit hours. The program is designed to strengthen leadership and help make many participants strong candidates for international careers.
But safety takes top priority. To coordinate these programs, VSU sends faculty to evaluate sites for security long in advance of trips and also works closely with Cross Cultural Solutions, a non-profit international volunteer service provider.
“When you’re looking at study abroad destinations,” Dr. Sample says, “it’s important for someone from the university to go there, be on the grounds, see it, gauge the level of security and see what kind of experiences the students will have. We want them to be in an enriching learning environment, but we also want them to be in a safe environment.”
Similar VSU study abroad trips this year included travel to Mexico and Costa Rica. Dr. Sample says VSU wants to offer students passports to the world: “Virginia State University is very serious about making sure that our students have a certain level of global competence when they graduate – that they understand what it means to be a global citizen and that they understand that real education is not just confined to a textbook. There are many lessons that students can learn by being engaged with people from cultures across the globe.”