Students and faculty meet with a local organization in Seville, Spain. Photo by Mirelsie Velazquez.
This May, the College of International Studies launched a new study abroad program, led by Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education professors Mirelsie Velazquez and Kirsten Hextrum. Entitled Diaspora Studies, the two-course study abroad experience was based in Seville, Spain, but also included a three-day trip to nearby Morocco. “Diaspora Studies usually examines dispersed ethnic populations/peoples, sometimes removed because of religious, political, economic upheaval, or because of slavery,” Velazquez explains regarding the program’s central topic. “Although traditionally we talk about people in relationship to space (both homelands and receiving communities), students quickly learned that there are groups of people for which that is very complicated, like the Romani people.”
The group spent their time in Seville visiting historical and cultural sites and participating in activities designed to engage with local communities, all in relation to their two courses: Diaspora: Race, Nation and Gender (taught by Velazquez) and Women and Sports (taught by Hextrum). In Morocco, students and faculty stayed in the multicultural city of Tétuoan and traveled to both Chaouen — a city beloved for its beautiful mountainous surroundings and startling blue buildings — and the historic seaside town of Asilah. While in Morocco, the group also seized the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ride camels in the Sahara desert.
While the program took students to beautiful and exciting places, Velazquez notes that the true highlight was the academic component, which connected lively and stimulating classroom conversations with community engagement meetings and site visits. The most impactful of these included a community resource center that helps Romani/Roma people in Spain — mainly women — receive medical, employment and education training and a local group which helps young refugee men with re-settlement. “One young man told his powerful story of his migration across Straits of Gibraltar to reach Europe for safety,” says Velazquez. “It was good for students to understand why people put their lives at risk to leave home for a better, or different, life.”
For student Willie Chavira, the experience offered a more in-depth, perspective-changing education than a typical university course. “The Diaspora Studies program gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in an entirely new culture, and educate myself on the injustices that minorities face in Europe, something I would have never been able to learn here [in Oklahoma],” he says. “Not only that, but it gave me lifelong memories and friendships. The Diaspora Studies program was one of the best decisions of my college career to date.”
After a successful first installment, Velazquez hopes to run the program again in future summers, allowing more students to explore this fascinating part of the world through the lens of diaspora. “I hope students were able to understand the humanity in people a bit more. It is not just important to theorize on people’s experiences, like we do in classrooms every day, but to see firsthand how people are forced to recreate home and community because of their displacement,” she says of the program’s impact. “I really do hope to run this program again. It was quite a transformative experience for me [as well].”
Interested in study abroad in Spain or Morocco? Visit the Education Abroad website to learn more, and check out our search engine for 2019-2020 options. To stay posted on info sessions and deadlines for programs like Diaspora Studies, follow @oucis on Twitter or Facebook.