Contingent to Morocco bridges cultural divide, breaks stereotypes

April 3 2007

INTERNATIONAL VISITS FORGE CONNECTIONS OF GOODWILL

Social work students from Indiana State University traveled to Morocco, over their spring break for more than simply academic reasons. They were specifically invited by students of Hassan II University-Mohammedia.

“We don’t want you to think we’re terrorists,” the students said to social work department chair Robyn Lugar the last time she was there in 2005. “Next time you come, bring your students back with you.”

So she did, during the university's spring break March 5-11. Most of the ISU students had never left the country before, and the Hassan II students had never met anybody from the United States. The result, as expressed by students from both universities, was an experience of deep, human connection and continuing friendship, despite a language barrier which required translators to convey their words to each other.

[image]
ISU social work major Christina Jackson (front, second from right) of Markle, visits Dar Taleb school for children who reside in the mountains of rural Tameslouht, Morocco. She is pictured with some of the schoolchildren and fellow social work majors from Hassan II University. (Submitted photo)

“Some of the students spoke English, so when we wanted to talk to someone else in the group, we would just ask them if they could translate for us,” Lugar said. “We bonded instantly and we hung together as a group, so it was no problem to find someone to help you talk to someone else.”

Michelle Yocom, senior social work major of Casey, Ill., said that although she was in a place that was new to her, she never felt alone.

“I had constant, consistent human connection with lots of hugs and kisses,” Yocom said. “I have fostered 13 children, and saying goodbye to my new family there was in the same category as saying goodbye to a child I had mothered for a year and a half. The goodbyes were some of the most difficult of my life.”

Soufiane Benalla, a social work student at Hassan II, expressed similar sentiments in an e-mail where he said he was grateful to meet social workers of such personal and professional quality. He listed each member of the ISU contingent and then said, “As you see, I have learned by heart their name.”

Knowledge of social work practices in other countries and sensitivity to other cultures is required by the Council on Social Work Education, the social work program’s accrediting body, and international travel more than meets this criterion.

But for Lugar, assistant professor of social work, achieving a connection of friendship and goodwill is one of the primary reasons she takes students with her to places across the globe, including Russia and Mexico. What she is working toward, with her students’ help, is nothing short of world peace, which she tackles in a practical way — one trip at a time.

“I believe the way to have peace is to get to know each other,” said Lugar, who has traveled to Tambov in Russia 12 times and to Morocco three times. “If we know each other, we won’t believe the propaganda that says they are our enemies.”

[image]
Brandon Skates, ISU junior social work major of Greencastle, gets to know the students at Dar Taleb school for children who reside in the mountains of rural Tameslouht, Morocco. Also pictured is senior social work major Audrey Sermersheim of Jasper. (Submitted photo)

In describing his time spent with the ISU students, Benalla, who speaks English as a third language after Arabic and French, wrote, “I learned that the human is the same. It is not important if he lives in America, or in Morocco, the only difference which exists is the culture, the language, and other things which are social; but in everyone there are all the same human principles of helping, and of love. Also I learned how to recognize me through the other, and this has touched me much.”

“WILL YOU TAKE MY PICTURE?”:
STUDENTS PUT LEARNED SKILLS INTO PRACTICE

For Brandon Skates, junior social work major of Greencastle, bridging the gap between Moroccan and American culture was as simple as walking across the room.

“When we got to the school where the children were, I could sense this barrier,” Skates said. “All the kids were on one side of the room and we were on the other, so I just went over there with a translator and started talking to them, and they liked that.”

Skates became a favorite companion of the students at the Dar Taleb school for children who reside in the mountains of rural Tameslouht in this northern African country. While their families live in the hills, the students live on-site at the school during the academic week, because the journey back and forth is too difficult on a daily basis.

“You learn these skills in class, how to relate to others as a social worker, and it was neat to be able to actually do it,” Skates said.

One important skill professionals need to have is to be able to assess when specific services are needed by a client. The ISU students had their eyes and ears open when interacting with the children at Dar Taleb and identified two who had very swollen jaws. They learned that severe dental infections were to blame, but that there was no money for treatment.

“I am so proud to say that our students saw this as unacceptable,” Lugar said, “and they put together money, out of their own pockets, and raised $150 for those two kids to get the dental care they needed.”

Children at Bayti Orphanage in Casablanca, also were beneficiaries of goodwill and goodies from the ISU crew.

“We brought over 200 stuffed animals, jump ropes, games, hair ties, combs, toothbrushes, candy and Girl Scout cookies,” said Lugar, who donated the majority of the toys. “I always hit the stores after major holidays and grab all the stuffed animals I can, at deep discounts, because I always know that at some point in the near future, I’m going to end up going somewhere in the world with kids.”

The children enjoyed the toys, but something else excited them more, Lugar said.

“They loved our students taking pictures of them with their digital cameras, and seeing themselves in the little window,” she said. “They would shout out to our students, ‘Take a picture of me!’”

“CAN YOU CARRY THESE 70 POUNDS OF BOOKS FOR ME?”:
LUGAR CREATES ANOTHER ENGLISH TEXTBOOK LIBRARY

Before the stuffed animals were presented to the children, they were pressed into service on the overseas voyage, doubling as cushion for the more than 1,200 pounds of textbooks that Lugar and her students gifted to Hassan II University-Mohammedia’s fledgling social work program for the creation of an English textbook library.

The enormity of the gift and the presence of the American students created a media buzz. Moroccan national channel 2M covered the event, interviewing Lugar and Skates.

[image]
Christina Jackson (left, shuffling cards), ISU junior social work major of Markle, and other ISU students show Hassan II University-Mohammedia social work students how to play UNO on Zimer Beach at Plage Tilal, Pont-Blondin, in Morocco. The popular American card game was a hit. (Submitted photo)

“They had a huge turnout to celebrate the start of this new library,” Lugar said. “The national TV was there and asked about the books, and asked the students about why they were there and what they hoped to accomplish.”

This is Lugar’s second English textbook library she has established and supplied at a university abroad, the first one being at Tambov State University in Russia, which now has the best academic collection of international materials on social work in that part of the world.

Along with its first English textbooks, Hassan II also was presented with a way to search them electronically. Skates and Lakeithia Webb, junior social work major of Hammond, compiled a searchable database of all 700 books, which ranged in topic from social work to political science, economics and psychology.

“The books we donated cover the different content areas that our social work students need to be familiar with,” Lugar said, “and in addition to the actual books, we’ve given them the first electronic library that they have at the university.”

PSYCHOLOGY DEPARTMENT PITCHES IN

Hassan II University started teaching its very first social work classes this past fall, which also were the first in the country. This accomplishment is one that ISU takes pride in as well, Lugar says.

ISU and the Moroccan university have been working together on a variety of activities since a collaboration agreement was signed in 2002. When Hassan II University decided to start a social work program, which would be the first at any university in the country, they called on Lugar for help.

In fall 2005, Mhammed Abderebbi, chairperson of the sociology department at Hassan II, came to ISU for four weeks with the task that when he went back, he would have a proposal for starting a new social work program put together for their president. Lugar worked with him continually during that time, explaining the importance of a code of ethics and showing him different academic models.

During her trips to Morocco since then, Lugar has taught Hassan II students and lead training sessions for current social work professionals in that country, and this trip was no different.

As part of Morocco’s National Initiative for Human Development, which was launched in May 2005 by King Mohammed VI, Lugar was invited during this visit to train 70 social service workers from the government, orphanages, elder-care centers and other associations.

In addition, ISU students made presentations to the social work students at Hassan II University, attended joint classes with them, and met with a local women’s agency to share information about their internship field work.

Joining Lugar and the social work students were Virgil Sheets, psychology professor and department chair, and two psychology students. With a social work program now underway, Hassan II is looking into developing undergraduate and graduate programs in clinical psychology, and ISU is once again offering to help.

“They were very interested in the nature of our training program in clinical psychology,” Sheets said, “and I hope that my department can be helpful in promoting successful attention to mental health training in Morocco.”

Chelsea Weyand, a clinical psychology doctoral student of Terre Haute, was given the chance to share her current research project with an international audience.

“I am mapping the various community resources available to children and families in Vigo County, as well as the strengths and gaps present in these services,” Weyand said. “I was able to provide some insight to the Moroccan students and professionals about how social services work in the United States, which I hope will help them as they develop services in their own country.”

Weyand’s project is being supported by a “Fulfilling the Promise” grant disbursed through the Center for Public Service and Community Engagement, and funded by the Lilly Endowment’s “Initiative to Recruit and Retain Intellectual Capital” program.

“This was an opportunity that any graduate student would consider the chance of a lifetime,” Weyand said, “and I know that it definitely widened my perspective of the usefulness of research on an international scale.”

Sheets says that he hopes to explore opportunities for international research collaborations with Hassan II University.

“I spoke with some professors and students regarding their research and about the processes for conducting research in Morocco, such as institutional review and obtaining subjects,” Sheets said. “I have a sense that collaborations are clearly possible in areas of common interests, such as gender issues, although no specific studies have been planned as yet.”

HOPES FOR FUTURE COLLABORATION

Skates, who had never traveled before, much less left the country, is now considering returning to Africa when he graduates.

“My mom was a single parent, so we were never even able to take family vacations,” Skates said. “Getting the chance to actually go across the ocean to another country was amazing.

“I learned from this trip that I can relate to people from other cultures; it’s something I’m good at and that I want to pursue. Being African-American, I was especially excited at the opportunity to visit Africa and experience it, and I think I might like to go back and be an international social worker.”

Students paid a fee to participate in the trip, but it would not have been possible without the additional support provided by the Office of the President, Lugar said.

“These students would never have been able to afford this trip on their own,” Lugar said. “This money changed the lives of not just the 14 ISU students who went, but the lives of the faculty and students at Hassan II, and the children we met.”

Lugar hopes that more students will be able to make the trip to Morocco, and that Hassan II students will come here as part of an exchange.

“We want them to come to some of our classes and visit some of our social service agencies,” Lugar said. “And we would like to return the kindness that they showed to us.”

Provost Jack Maynard also traveled with the group to Morocco, with representatives from ISU’s College of Education and International Affairs Center, for a project aimed at developing accreditation standards for Moroccan higher education.

“I was very pleased with what I saw taking place during Indiana State’s most recent trip to Morocco,” Maynard said. “Our students and faculty were ambassadors of goodwill and academic partnership, offering their time and expertise to our global partner in higher education, Hassan II University-Mohammedia.”

Maynard was on hand for the reception when the library of English social work textbooks was presented to Hassan II University.

“While our social work and psychology students were reaching out to the Hassan II students and the Moroccan children at the social service agencies, they also were gaining an understanding of their professions at the international level,” Maynard said. “Indiana State is a place where experiences like this can and do happen.”

Lugar says she is inspired by the enthusiasm of the Moroccan people to help their fellow countrymen in need, and it is personally rewarding to be a part of it.

“We are helping to make a difference in this country that has an unbelievable need because of the level of poverty,” Lugar said. “It is amazing what they have accomplished in their social work program in one year, and it is a once in a lifetime opportunity for our students to witness the birth of social work in a country. We are so proud to be a part of it all.”

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PHOTOS:

Brandon Playing with Kids
Brandon Playing with Kids: Brandon Skates, ISU junior social work major of Greencastle, gets to know the students at Dar Taleb school for children who reside in the mountains of rural Tameslouht, Morocco. Also pictured is senior social work major Audrey Sermersheim of Jasper. (Submitted photo)

Jackson Teaching UNO
Jackson Teaching UNO: Christina Jackson (left, shuffling cards), ISU junior social work major of Markle, and other ISU students show Hassan II University-Mohammedia social work students how to play UNO on Zimer Beach at Plage Tilal, Pont-Blondin, in Morocco. The popular American card game was a hit. (Submitted photo)

Jackson with Schoolchildren
Jackson with Schoolchildren: ISU social work major Christina Jackson (front, second from right) of Markle, visits Dar Taleb school for children who reside in the mountains of rural Tameslouht, Morocco. She is pictured with some of the schoolchildren and fellow social work majors from Hassan II University. (Submitted photo)

Say Cheese
Say Cheese: The children at the orphanage in Morocco enjoyed the stuffed animals and toys that Professor Robyn Lugar and the ISU students brought with them, but what they really loved was taking each other’s picture with the students’ digital cameras, and then seeing themselves in the little window.

CONTACT: Robyn Lugar chair and assistant professor of social work, Indiana State University, rlugar@indstate.edu or (812) 237-3428.

WRITER: Katie Spanuello, media relations assistant director, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3790 or kspanuello@isugw.indstate.edu

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Story Highlights

Social work and psychology students and faculty from Indiana State University traveled to Morocco during the university's spring break March 5-11, 2007, to help train new social work professionals in that country, and develop friendships with students from Hassan II University-Mohammedia.

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