Richard’s introductory note: I am collaborating with Elena Gomez – from the University of Cordoba (Spain) – regarding Cordoba’s placements of pre-service teacher-trainees for a two-week period in the Western Sahara refugee camps in southern Algeria (for more on this, see Elena’s voicethread presentation on this project).
I am honoured to be invited by Richard to participate in this Doctoral Community blog. As Richard noted above, I work for the English Department at the University of Cordoba (Southern Spain). I am also in charge of the International Relations of the Faculty of Education as the Vice-Dean for International Affairs.
When I first started in this Faculty, I thought there were some inconsistencies in the Teacher Studies programme: in particular, the future teachers of my region (we mainly recruit students from Cordoba – only 9% students come from other regions or abroad) tend to participate in large numbers in social engagement projects (e.g. looking after senior citizens, those with disabilities …) but no attention was paid to this in their programme. Given that I was the person responsible for International Affairs, I start designing (and then planning, financing, etc) a programme which did address such social engagement as linked also to internationalisation. I did this because I think such activities are important for all thse involved in society, especially those responsible for the socialisation of the the next generations, i.e. especially teachers.
So, that’s how everything started. Now, after five years (and four expeditions organised by the Faculty of Education to Algeria), my instincts seem to have been confirmed. The Call for Participation are eagerly awaited by my 3rd year students, 15 of whom are selected according to some parameters: qualifications, the social activities they have participated in along their lives, and the letter of motivation they must write.
The following points help, I hope, demonstrate how the programme is developing:
- year after year, more than 60 teacher trainees apply for the programme even though only 15 of them can be selected;
- students from other Universities (Zaragoza, Valencia, Salamanca …) have come as students to our Faculty just to have the opportunity to participate in the programme and two of them were successfully selected;
- living conditions in the camp are not at easy, and they participants accept this – e.g. scarcity of showers and electricity; lots of hard work; closer contact with cockroaches and rats than they are used to; the limited diet;
- trainees who are interested in the Sahara programme start preparing their applications for this in advance and begin undertaking social engagement activities locally from Year 1 of their studies. (at application time for the saharan project, ee give 33% of the CV merits to such social engagement activities. Their partcipatin (e.g. as Red Cross Volunteers has increased the levels of social engagment participation in the city).
- preparatory sessions (three before the selected students travel) are obligatory for them (they have to ask for permission if they are working, attending classes …)
So, the main question in my mind is: “If the progarmme is so hard, why is it so popular?”. There are other ways to travel abroad which are easier and require much less effort (Erasmus, for example). The answer is not easy. Richard has said something about this in his introduction: the emotional gain is higher than expected (higher even than their high expectations). My students know that these Western Saharans are refugees who, a variety of political reasons, have been stranded in these camps in southern Algeria. Their children are living the consequences of this (a source of inequity I would argue). Trainee teachers from our Faculty travel for a 15-day visit in order to participate in the schools and, in general, work with these children.
The written objective of my programme is to ‘help Saharan children learn Spanish’ – the unwritten objective is ‘learn yourself how hard life can be, and how different it is just depending on geographical conditions’. My students learn (in just 15 days) that unfair situations are nearer to their world than they realise – and many of them develop long-term ties with the Saharan children, families, teachers … and 100% of them want to come back the next years (some of them do). This is something they learn, and something they will teach to their own students – so, I deeply believe something can change, and this is the real sense of the programme; we can change things in our societies, and education is the key (the starting point perhaps).