The lives of countless Grand Rapids High School students and Moroccan students were changed by a generous grant from the Qatar Foundation International, sought out by two local teachers, Eric Northard and Brielle Carlson. The Qatar Foundation aims to extend dialogue on issues related to countries in North Africa and the Middle East, while addressing common cultural misconceptions. After an extensive application, Northard and Carlson, GRHS teachers and advisors of the Grand Rapids High School Interact Club were thrilled to learn that their ideas to connect Grand Rapids students with students from Morocco was one of a few projects in the U.S. to be awarded a STAGE (School Travel Award for Global Exchange) grant. The Interact Club was awarded $29,998 to develop a digital and in person project connecting Grand Rapids students with students from the Sidi Moumen Cultural Center in the outskirts of Casablanca.
Upon receiving the grant, Northard and Carlson began working on making this experience a success. In addition to having our local students travel to Morocco, they also hoped students from Morocco could visit Grand Rapids. Early last May the first part of the plan came to fruition. Five Moroccan students from a suburb outside of the Moroccan capital of Casablanca, traveled to Grand Rapids. The students were hosted by families and students from GRHS and welcomed with a plethora of activities ranging from trips to the Twin Cities and Duluth, enjoying sporting events at the high school, participating in service learning projects, engaging in outdoor activities, bowling, and even going to Grand Rapids High School Prom. Many classes at the high school enjoyed and learned from their presentations about Moroccan culture. Another cross-cultural experience was having Grand Rapids students mentor, both digitally and in-person, Moroccan students as they prepared to participate in the World Food Prize competition that is regionally held each year in Crookston. Northard’s College in the School Geography students participate in the event each year by writing papers that tackle food security issues around the world. Last spring, along with Grand Rapids students, the Moroccan students successfully presented their papers to state agricultural and development experts at the University of Minnesota Crookston.
After the successful spring exchange, it was time for Grand Rapids students and adults to travel to Morocco. At the end of June, 13 GRHS students, one Hibbing student, two university students (also from Grand Rapids), and five adults embarked on a two and half week adventure to North Africa. The group spent the vast majority of their time in Morocco at the Sidi Moumen Cultural Center which was created to serve underprivileged youth who live in an urban area near Casablanca. Grand Rapids students taught and participated in English, art, music, theater, and sport classes with students ranging from 5 to 18 years old. Students stayed with Moroccan host families and were treated to Moroccan cuisine and culture. The group was also able to take two weekend trips, one to Marrakech near the Atlas Mountains and one to Chefchaouen in the north near the Rif Mountain Range, to explore the diversity in landscape and culture of Morocco. This was the second time in the past three years that the Interact Club has sponsored a service learning trip to Sidi Moumen and through these exchanges our students have made close connections with their Moroccan peers.
While traveling, GRHS students created travel blogs to reflect on their experiences.
Katie Koller, a current senior at GRHS, wrote, “Teaching at the cultural center was beyond incredibly rewarding. Words will never do justice for me to describe how gratifying and impactful it was…..I learned to be patient, I learned to push myself way out of my comfort zone.”
In his blog, Sam Stertz, a current junior at GRHS, recorded, “A lesson that I learned about myself was that, acceptance of another race or group will go a long way on the way to the termination of racism and global acceptance of everyone, despite our differences.”
Another reflection came from Makenzie Birkey, a 2019 graduate from GRHS and a current student at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., “Even though we didn’t share a language, we still were able to form lasting relationships and communicate in other ways. This ability to communicate in ways other than language was a very important skill that I developed over the course of the trip.”
The Moroccan experience has not ended as Grand Rapids High School is fortunate to host an exchange student, Salma Boukhana, from the community where the group stayed this past summer. She is sponsored by the Rotary Club of Grand Rapids and is spending the year in Grand Rapids. She is the second Moroccan exchange student that Grand Rapids High School has hosted. Northard and Carlson continue to look for new and creative ways to connect students to the world and the Moroccan connection is one that promises to continue for years to come.