While study abroad programs in Morocco have ceased under COVID-19 travel restrictions, virtual programming offers students opportunities to continue learning about the North African country.
Rabat – For years, Morocco has lured students from around the world who wish to discover the country’s rich history, diverse landscapes, culture, language, and beauty. The North African country has hosted a variety of international exchange programs, study abroad students, and school trips. Now, amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, the industry of international education is searching for solutions to uphold global learning opportunities in unprecedented times.
“We had to just sit down and take a pause to think about what is going on and how we are going to remain afloat—and offer something that has value,” Ali Bensebaa, Program Director for the Moroccan Center for Arabic Studies (MCAS), told Morocco World News. Each year, the MCAS brings anywhere from 100 to 500 foreign students to Morocco for language studies and volunteer internship programs.
Many organizations that facilitate programs in Morocco for foreign students are attempting to strategize a new approach and offer students alternative experiences. Although it is impossible to simply replace in-person and in-country experience, many organizations are harnessing the potential of technology in order to meet cross-cultural learning demands and pull their organizations through until it’s possible for travel to resume.
Evacuating students and canceling programs
Bensebaa explained that the school evacuated nearly two dozen students in March when Morocco declared its state of emergency. MCAS does not expect to bring any students into the country until at least 2021.
Similarly, experiential education organization Where There Be Dragons (WTBD) has canceled all of its programs for the year 2020. Morocco is one of the 15 countries in which the US-based organization runs programs, offering students from around the world the opportunity to spend a summer or semester “discovering the famed hospitality, faiths, and languages of Morocco across mountain ranges, ancient cities, and rural villages.”
WTBD also offers schools the chance to customize programs that meet their curriculum needs. This means that in early March, a US student group on a two-week custom high school program successfully finished their course and left Morocco days before the country closed its airspace.
WTBD hopes to resume their programs with either limited or significant modifications by the start of 2021, pending travel restrictions and risk management protocol.
US non-profit organization AMIDEAST was also forced to evacuate a number of students from Morocco in March. AMIDEAST’s education abroad programming allows students from the US to travel to Morocco for language and cultural studies. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization was facilitating 85 American students’ experiences in Morocco.
Challenges and resilience
The impact of cancelled programs, low student enrollment, and the overall loss of revenue has put some organizations in a precarious state. Many administrators, educators, and community partners have lost their jobs or taken significant salary cuts.
Both MCAS and WTBD report doing their best to be flexible and mindful moving forward. While the possibility of sustaining the organizations’ usual program capacities and offerings under current circumstances is far from possible, efforts including virtual exchanges with schools, online seminars, and other unique offerings are helping to prevent the organizations from total collapse.
On the other hand, AMIDEAST’s overall resilience can be attributed to other aspects of their organization which involve educational and professional development programming for Moroccans.
“We have always had a variety of different programs and different funding sources that have allowed us to have a certain sustainability,” Chris Shinn, AMIDEAST’s Morocco Country Director, told Morocco World News. “I think of [AMIDEAST] as a very resilient organization.”
Celebrating its 40th year working in Morocco, Shinn expressed confidence in AMIDEAST’s strong foundation and programming. While it is unclear when students from the US will be able to travel to Morocco, the non-profit is exploring online immersion opportunities until it is safe to resume programs as usual—hopefully in January 2021.
AMIDEAST continues to offer English language courses, academic advising, testing, and workforce development programs aimed at supporting Moroccans wishing to study abroad or gain professional soft skills.
Looking ahead: Unknowns and opportunities
As of July 15, Morocco’s airspace is exceptionally open to Moroccan citizens, residents, and their family members wishing to return home from abroad or leave the country. As well, foreigners who found themselves stuck in Morocco during the COVID-19 state of emergency will be permitted to leave. However, the country has not announced its plans to resume international travel as usual, leaving study abroad coordinators uncertain about the prospects of future programs.
The current situation creates space for further innovative solutions and enhancements to virtual programming and exchanges. On the bright side, these new opportunities may offer students unable to travel abroad to Morocco the chance to gain greater insight into the country’s rich culture, language, and history.
An increase in virtual exchanges may also give Moroccans new opportunities to connect with students around the world.
Still, Bensebaa expressed the shortcomings of virtual classes and programs, saying the “intimate experience someone can have by coming here for language or service programs is definitely not to be replaced.”
While images, texts, and virtual connections may struggle to do Morocco justice, the opportunities to learn about the North African country are not canceled and future opportunities to experience it fully hopefully lay ahead.