Montana State University

Service project in remote Morocco is transformative for MSU students

April 27, 2012 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


Samantha Hinckley and Christie Blaskovich walk children to school in the remote village of Zawiya Ahansal in Morocco's Atlas Mountains. The two MSU French students were part of a team led by MSU French professor Ada Giusti that helped teach basic computer skill to people in the village during MSU's spring break. Photo courtesy of Ada Giusti.   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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While spring break means an escape to fun and sun for many college students, it will forever conjure memories of service for four Montana State University students who spent this year's spring break in the remote Atlas Mountains of Morocco helping a tiny Berber community connect with the outside world.

Led by Ada Giusti, MSU French professor, the students spent a week conducting computer training, primarily in French, to the people of the remote village of Zawiya Ahansal. The area is so remote that it only received electricity a year ago and the people of the community, many who make their living serving adventure tourists to the Atlas Mountains, wanted to learn how to use donated computers.

Tessa Mosdal of Roundup, Bronwyn Rolph of Seattle, Christie Blaskovich of Butte and Samantha Hinckley of Bozeman taught basic computer use and maintenance. Helena LaFave, also of Butte, didn't travel with the group but helped develop handbooks, written in French and English, to teach Microsoft Office Word, Excel and PowerPoint as well as basic computer skills. French is commonly spoken in Morocco, although Arabic and Berber are the official languages.

"Originally the students expected to train staff and board members of two local nongovernmental organizations --Atlas Cultural Foundation and Association Amezray," Giusti said. "However, the training was so popular that participants also included employees of the local town council, the sheikh of Zawiya Ahansal, the imam from the village of Aguddim, and university students from Beni Mellal."

The trip and the work was a partnership between MSU and Cloe Medina Erickson, an MSU graduate and founder of the Atlas Cultural Foundation. Erickson, who lives part of the year in Livingston, started the organization to help rural Moroccans, especially women and children who live in small Berber communities in the Atlas Mountains, improve their quality of life through locally determined development projects.

Giusti, who has incorporated service learning into her advanced French grammar curriculum since 1996, said her connection with Erickson began in fall 2011, when her students translated the Atlas Cultural Foundation's website. Last November, Giusti's planned service learning project in Mali was canceled for political and safety reasons. She looked for another experience involving French and contacted Erickson. For the last several years, Erickson has helped sponsor a summer study abroad program through the MSU School of Architecture and the MSU Office of International Programs to bring students to the area to help the community as it renovates ancient Berber granaries into sustainable community buildings.

"Cloe told us that the community had computers that were donated, but that the people could use training in how to use them," said Giusti, who found funding for the trip from the MSU Undergraduate Scholars Program.

The students who participated said the experience, including living in a local Berber home, was transformative.

"When you can speak the same language as someone else, I feel like your time spent with them becomes much more personal," said Rolph, a senior majoring in civil engineering and French. "Since French was not the primary language of us or the people we worked with, but we could both speak it fairly well, it was almost like we could identify with each other better. We both had chosen to abandon our comfort zones to communicate with each other, and in doing so it was almost like a silent understanding despite all the ways that we were different, we could see our more meaningful commonalities."

Some of those commonalities include that while Morocco is on the other side of the world, in many ways the landscape in the Atlas Mountains and the people's friendliness reminded the students of Montana.

"The Berbers of the High Atlas Mountains have a very similar relationship to their environment as we, Montanans, do," said Blaskovich, a senior graduating with degrees in French and Chemistry. "They are all in love with the mountains and their mountain climate. Yet, there is a very large difference socially. Zaouia-Ahansal is the second poorest region in Morocco and the inhabitants rely heavily on mountain tourism and subsistence farming."

Mosdal, who was not in Giusti's French class but is a part of MSU's award-winning Engineers Without Borders project and came to Morocco from the EWB project in Kenya, said the friendliness of the Berber people transcended language. The students were also aided by translators in the village.

"It was astonishing how much could be communicated without words," said Mosdal, who is a senior majoring in civil engineering. "I was surprised by the extreme hospitality of the Moroccan people. They accepted us with open arms and made us feel more than welcome. Those in the village gave us more of their time and resources than we expected or imagined."

Mosdal said a highlight of the trip was when the group stopped in Casablanca, visiting the family of two Moroccan students who attend MSU.

"The Zaazaa family treated us like we were also family, instead of just classmates of their children," she said. "I have traveled to quite a few places across the world and Morocco is one of the most breathtaking countries I have visited, but Morocco is more than just beauty. The people were arguably the most caring and generous I have encountered in the world."

The MSU contingent, all female, decided to adopt modest dress and head coverings in respect for the village's devout Islam faith. The students said they believe the decision helped them earn quick respect of the people in the village. Hinckley, who is majoring in both French and fine art (painting and printmaking), said she came to view the headscarf as a "beautiful symbol of camaraderie between women."

"Perhaps the biggest thing I took home from Morocco was a sense of empowerment as a woman," she said.

"Being part of an all-female team traveling to such a different part of the world makes me feel proud to represent what women can accomplish. Truly experiencing a new society is at times confusing, but with an open mind it is exciting and humbling to better understand the differences as well as the underlying similarities in the human way of life."

Giusti said the experience was so positive that she is talking to Erickson about opportunities to return. She also plans to offer a seminar on Moroccan culture and literature next spring. In that course students will have the opportunity to design and implement service-learning projects identified by Moroccan villagers.

"I think that service-learning projects are extremely valuable to the communities that have identified a specific need because they receive services that they could not otherwise afford," she said, emphasizing that the projects must be chosen by the community or organization.

In addition to providing an opportunity to help students learn about intercultural teamwork and to live and work with people from different cultures and different economic backgrounds, service learning classes help students take knowledge they have learned in the classroom and apply it to real life projects, she said.

"Students have said over and over again that service-learning projects have changed their lives and made them feel privileged to study at MSU where such opportunities are offered to them," Giusti said.

Ada Giusti (406) 994-6442, umlag@montana.edu