IES Abroad: Take us back to the beginning of your study abroad experience. What made you want to study abroad? Why Rabat and Rome? What made you decide to do two semesters?
Yazmin Baptiste (YB): When I decided to study abroad, I was going through a difficult time in college. I had always planned on studying abroad, but I didn't really know where to begin. I decided my first step was to figure out how to get financial aid to go. I went to my financial aid office, and, luckily, they said that I could study abroad with my scholarship.
And so I was like, "Okay. Now the next step is to find out where to go." And I chose Rabat first because I'm a Religious Studies minor, and I definitely wanted to study Islam as one of the main religions that I focused on.
Then through my time being in Rabat and learning about immigration, I realized I have so much more to learn about immigration and decided to go with Rome, Italy because they have a Sociology & Religion program that has a lot of immigration courses. And I thought that was the best fit for my academics and my interests.
I really wanted to do a year but, again, the financial issues. So I called my school back when I was in Morocco, and I was like, "Hey, can you please help me with another semester?" and my scholarship also covered that. It's been all a blessing, honestly.
IES Abroad: You shared that your volunteer work with Foundation Orient – Occident helped you “understand immigration away from academic or professional settings and learn what it would be like to work in immigration away from the American context.” How did your experience volunteering with migrants and refugees in Morocco compare and contrast to your experiences and knowledge of immigration in America?
YB: Well, it's different because Morocco is not a western country. It's referred to as a developing country. When people think about immigration in general, they think of a bunch of people coming into countries like America and the countries in Western Europe.
In Italy, I learned, actually, that the largest amount of refugees are actually in Africa and the Middle East. And so it's different because Morocco has a lot of issues. Not a lot, but some Moroccans are leaving because the infrastructure in Morocco is just not livable. It was interesting to see how the civil society in Morocco works so differently from the nonprofit organizations in America, and the infrastructure is so different. It was interesting to see how different countries with different cultures tried to manage the same problem.
But it was the same in that—so a lot of the immigrants that I worked with were from Africa, so they were black—it's interesting to see how the anti-blackness rhetoric was really similar. The people I was teaching, they were telling me they'd walk in the street and people would call them the N-word...It's interesting to see that the rhetoric about immigrants is really the same in America and in Morocco.
IES Abroad: You also mentioned that often you felt like you were participating in “voluntourism.” Can you share more about that aspect of your experience?
YB: This is a really good question because I think it's really tough to see yourself as a voluntourist. But I think it was important for me to put that in my [Global Citizen of the Year] application and to really reflect on what that looked like for me, and how to grow from that experience, which is why I decided to go and study in Italy and to do my research project.
In the internship with IES Abroad you also do a seminar. My professor would talk about how civil society has changed since the Arab Spring, and then I would see in my internship how that would actually play out on an individual level, and how people actually experience civil society with infrastructure that's really going through these really big changes.
I think I was participating in voluntourism because my organization specifically, they use a lot of American students who circle in and out of teaching every three months, so I was part of that bigger cycle. For teaching, in particular, you need some type of consistency, but then also immigrants are always moving so our class levels fluctuated a lot.
I thought I was participating in voluntourism because I was able to take so much meaning from that experience, but then it was questionable how much meaning the people I was teaching were taking from that experience. It's uncomfortable, very uncomfortable, to think about myself in that way but I think it's important to acknowledge where the shortcomings were and where I can improve in the future.
IES Abroad: In what ways, if any, do you believe Americans volunteering abroad can break away from “voluntourism”?
YB: Research first. So, in my case, I did research on why immigrants were coming to Morocco, why not anywhere else? And a lot of my students were from Cameroon so I researched a little bit about what was happening in Cameroon.
I think also [it’s important] to understand the power dynamics specifically in teaching people English. I can go to Morocco and see them and talk to them and everything. But then they could never come to New York, where I live, and see how I live and see what I'm doing.
It's important to adapt where needed. So, for example, I think in American classrooms we're very used to have a teacher standing up in front of the room and just teaching people. Then me and my co-teachers realized we need to do something more interactive. We realized competitions were the best way to teach our students, and they really like that and really learned a lot of English words through the little competitions.
I think it's important to do your research and then also reflect on what you're doing, so the next day you can improve on what you're doing. You're probably not going to get it on the first try, but if you take accountability for what you've done today, you can be better tomorrow.
IES Abroad: In Rome you continued to study immigration and completed research on how companies affect immigration to Italy. What interested you about this topic specifically? What were some of the key findings of your research?
YB: I did an internship my freshman summer with an organization called Worth Rises [formerly called The Corrections Accountability Project], and I was doing research on companies that benefited from prison. I started getting into this idea of who profited from incarceration, who profits from detention—ideas like that. That idea really stuck with me.
I took that to my research in Italy. My research documents the private companies who profit off of immigration in every step.
I start in the Middle East and in Africa, and I talk about this company called Leonardo. They sell arms to people in countries in the Middle East that are already in conflict. They're assisting in the fueling of those conflicts which makes people migrate. Then companies like Leonardo are in lobbying groups. They're in this group called The European Organization for Security, and they lobby for policies that make it harder for immigrants to come into the EU, especially to legally come into the EU.
So [companies] fuel the conflicts in the country, they prevent [immigrants] from getting into the country, and then if they're not allowed asylum and they're put into detention, more companies come in and profit off of [the immigrants] again.
[My research] talked about each stage of that process and then also connected this to the larger history of colonialism and the relationship—the power dynamic—between Western Europe and the so-called “other.”
IES Abroad: Part of the Global Citizen of the Year award is a $500 charitable donation to an organization of your choice. You chose No Más Muertes – tell us about the organization and why you chose it.
YB: No Màs Muertes is an organization that I really admire because they do humanitarian aid directly with migrants. They also do educational stuff, they do legal aid, they do policy work. And I really like the multifaceted way they do their work.
They started as community organizations coming together to do as a coalition to help immigrants in their community, and I really appreciate and admire communities coming together to work on the issue that they see that is important to them.
Also No Màs Muertes, they are really famous for advocating against the criminalization of humanitarian aid. A few of their volunteers were arrested and convicted for putting water in the desert [for migrants]. A couple of days ago in January, that conviction won on appeal and that conviction was reversed. I really admire the work that they're doing.
Since I learned about No Màs Muertes, I've worked with other grassroots organizations. I worked with Angry Tías and Abuelas for my thesis that I'm working on now. I also volunteered with a couple of other people in my college with BorderLinks.
All of these organizations, especially the grassroots organizations, are doing such great work. So that's why I chose them, but it also could've went to a number of amazing organizations I've worked with!
IES Abroad: What did you learn about the world through your experiences in Rabat and Rome?
YB: I think I had a really idealized concept of what Europe was before I went. So I feel like a lot of times when people think of Europe, it's like, "Universalized healthcare! They're doing great!" right?
I realized how similar they were, especially in regard to rhetoric towards immigrants. The former prime minister of Italy, I had to do a lot of research on him, and a lot of the rhetoric that he used was, "Oh, the immigrants are diluting our culture. They're taking away resources from all of us."
So it was interesting, in both Morocco and Italy, to see how people reacted to that kind of rhetoric... And I think it really gave me a more nuanced idea of how the world works especially in Western Europe.
IES Abroad: What did you learn about yourself?
YB: I think I learned that I'm a lot more brave than I thought I was. I want to share with you this story. IES Abroad Rabat took us to the desert towards the end of our semester, and my friends saw these guys who were at the hotel we were at and they had ATVs. ATVs were really expensive to rent.
So they were like, "Let's ask those guys what they're doing, where they're going to go." And we asked them and they were like, "Oh. Do you want to ride with us?" And we were like, "Yes." They ended up being professional ATVers.
And they took us around the whole desert and then they brought us to an oasis. And then we drank tea with them. And honestly, that's not a thing I would do before studying abroad.*
It taught me to be more open to different people around the world. To be more brave. To be more curious and to be more open to new experiences.
IES Abroad: In your application, you shared that you are creating a Mental Health Invisible Tour at Lafayette College inspired by an Invisible Tour of migrants in Rome that you went on while studying abroad. What is an invisible tour and why do you think it’s an effective medium?
YB: My Invisible Tour is going to be a podcast filled with narratives from people on campus who experience mental health struggles or successes at Lafayette.
I think it will be an effective medium because a lot of the tour is anonymous. You can't see the person who's talking. I think with anonymity, people are a lot more open to share what their feelings are and what their experiences are.
Experiencing an Invisible Tour in Rome—that was one of the biggest things that impacted me in Rome. I got to see these really famous places that I had already visited from a totally different perspective.
They took us to this little store. It looked like a store you would just pass right by, but it ends up that's one of the places where you can get your papers and become documented as an immigrant.
To see these familiar places from a different perspective really had a big impact on me, and I think people are more able to speak freely about what they feel when it is anonymous, when you can't see them.
IES Abroad: What has the process of organizing the tour at Lafayette College been like from ideation to now, a month or so out from launching?
YB: It was hard. So first, I had to ask people all over campus to submit a narrative, and that's a big thing. Even though it is anonymous, people do not want to go back to places where they struggled or might have experienced a type of difficulty because it involves them being vulnerable.
But I did get quite a few responses, luckily, and now, I am doing recordings and trying to link all of those stories together to make it meaningful, which is hard, but also really exciting and fun...This is another [difficult] thing because everyone in the college campus is really busy and doing amazing work, so just gathering people and organizing them together has been difficult but fun.
IES Abroad: How has your study abroad experience shaped your future? What’s next for you in the short-term? What kind of world do you want to help build in the long-term?
YB: Studying abroad really opened up a lot of options for me that I didn't think I had. I never thought living outside of America was an option for me, period. And doing this experience really taught me that I am capable, I am deserving, I am worthy of going abroad and doing things that I see other people doing all the time.
Short term, hopefully, I guess to go to grad school in Spain or Ireland, (hopefully, hopefully, hopefully!)
Long term, I'd like to be a part of a grassroots organization like the ones I mentioned before. I think in my work doing grassroots organizations in the future, I really want to be a part of the solution to power inequities in the world.
I think a lot of times, we don't speak about the inequalities that are happening in the world. There’s a quote about it: when we don't speak about it, we are complicit in perpetuating those inequities. I hope to continue the work that I'm starting now and challenge how we think about how the world works and how we can imagine a world that we would like to see that is more equitable.
IES Abroad: Thinking about yourself and your peers who will be graduating in the next year or so, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges you anticipate facing?
YB: I think because of social media, we are increasingly becoming aware that a lot of our issues across the world are very similar. One example that I can think of is capitalism. Across the world, the consequences of capitalism are just starking.
We see that a lot of people across the world are dealing with racism. They're dealing with anti-LGBT rhetoric. They're dealing with xenophobia. And I think the next year or so, I think we'll be dealing a lot with trying to understand how these power dynamics work, especially dealing with literature that's already out there about power dynamics.
I can see us trying to handle—to deal with the inequities and the injustices that we see in the world.
IES Abroad: What do you think are the most important skills and qualities you will all need to carry with you to face these challenges?
YB: I think we need a lot more empathy, first and foremost.
I think a lot of people come into new situations working with their own experiences. And thus, they can only work through problems with their own experiences, not realizing that other people out there have different experiences...I think to empathize with people is important. I think to have a strong sense of accountability for what you do is really important. I think a lot of times, people just think that what they're doing is absolutely good—so if you're volunteering, you're doing an absolutely great job.
But volunteering is complicated. It can be good one day. It could be bad the next. It could be iffy in the middle. And I think having a strong sense of accountability for what you do in the world is important and to have patience with others and yourself to think through the ways that we can improve our future and to work through the challenges that we're facing today.
IES Abroad: Who is a peer that inspires you, whether that’s someone you know personally or have looked up to from afar?
YB: Yeah. That's a great question. So I met somebody in Rome, Italy. Her name is Lara Andree. She was like my best friend in studying abroad. I'm so proud of her.
She won the Gilman scholarship. One of the things that she did was start like a pen pal kind of situation. Before she went abroad, she talked with groups of color about the idea of studying abroad. While she was abroad, she sent some emails and letters and stuff like that talking about her experiences.
After, she brought some stuff back from Italy to talk about her experience studying abroad, but also like introducing the topic of studying abroad to students of color, which is something I think is so important.
I really admired how she went about thinking through making her study abroad experience meaningful and opening up students to the option they didn't even think they had before. She also wants to be a teacher right now, and she's going to be a great teacher one day.
IES Abroad: If you could give one piece of advice to future study abroad students, what would it be?
YB: For future study abroad students or students of color: I think for me, the idea of studying abroad is very daunting, especially the idea of paying for it. I want to say to them, "Go to your financial aid office, and ask." I think a lot of times, we just don't know the money is out there, and there are people who are willing to help.
For example, I also got an IES Abroad scholarship, and that was really helpful. There are also third-party scholarships. There are so many different ways you could get the money.
I hope that they realize that they're deserving of the money and they deserve an opportunity to study abroad like they see other people doing. So just go and put yourself out there and see the options that you have, especially in institutions of higher education. There is a lot of money that is available, and it's just a matter of seeking out the right people who are willing to help you.
IES Abroad: How does it feel to be named the IES Abroad Global Citizen of the Year?
YB: I'm still a little bit in shock. I'm not going to lie to you! I think I doubt myself a lot and what I'm doing. I'm definitely an overthinker. I think about things over and over again to make sure like this is what I want to do. This was really assuring to me that the decisions I'm making, the things that I'm doing are in the right direction. I really appreciate the time you guys took to read over my application—it's just really encouraging!