In December 2013, a group of Vanderbilt students participated in the first annual OACS Winter Break Service Program in Morocco. Let by Sherif Barsoum, Director of International Student & Scholar Services, and Clive Mentzel, Director of OACS, the cohort was introduced to the intricate beauty of Moroccan culture while engaging in meaningful service. Read below as Laura Silliman, a senior at Vanderbilt University, double majoring in Political Science and Latin American Studies and minoring in Spanish, reflects on her experience:
It may sound strange, but culture shock is one of my favorite parts of going abroad. Though often awkward and uncomfortable, I love the sense of exposure that you experience upon visiting a place that challenges what you believe about the world and about yourself. When one surrenders to this vulnerability in an unfamiliar cultural context, personal growth is inevitable. For this reason, I was eager to apply for the 2013 Morocco Winter Break Program.
Since I had never before traveled to an Islamic state or an African country, the culture shock that we experienced in Morocco certainly met my expectations. Waking up to the sound of a rooster crowing, hearing the Islamic call to prayer five times daily, and—unfortunately—experiencing street harassment were frequent reminders that I was in a culture that I did not know, but that I hoped to better understand. Yet, though our group was challenged by and also eagerly engaged in a myriad of novel experiences, what impacted me most was the immense common ground that we found that we shared with the Moroccans.
Engaging in a variety of service-learning opportunities over the course of our 10-day trip enabled us to not just experience Morocco as tourists, but to really immerse ourselves in the culture and interact with people from distinct sectors of Moroccan society. One afternoon, we took a tram to the slums of Salé, which is the sister city of Rabat. In a community center there, we taught basic English lessons to Moroccan youths who hoped to secure employment in the hospitality industry. Though their limited English made communication difficult, we found common ground by using gestures to tell about the activities that we enjoyed doing, as well as by sharing aspects of U.S. and Moroccan popular culture with one another. Later, the director of the community center described our time with the youths as essential to “give them another vision of life—more than Salé, more than Morocco.” In catching a glimpse of their goals and dreams for the future, I feel that we were impacted just as much, if not more than, the youths were.
In addition to visits to a nursing home and a community hospital, we had the opportunity to engage with Moroccan staff members at several human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and the National Human Rights Council. As we sat around a table and discussed issues of human rights and gender, I realized that despite our cultural differences, our values were exactly the same—freedom, equality, and justice. Engaging with these human rights groups reminded me of the need for international solidarity—across cultural divides—in order to achieve common goals in the struggle for human rights.
Experiences such as eating snails in the marketplace, riding a camel, and watching the flow of traffic stop amid the celebration of a Moroccan soccer team’s win gave me a greater appreciation for different cultures. But perhaps even more importantly, our trip to Morocco enhanced my understanding of the need to establish solidarity across cultures and unite in the commonalities of our humanity.