The Antidote to the Travel Ban: Erin Willis on the Transformative Power of Study Abroad

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Erin Willis, Fredonia’s Assistant Director for Study Abroad and Exchange Programs, in Jerusalem

“What’s your major?”

The most frequently asked question in American higher education might soon be accompanied by one that more accurately reflects the college experience: “Where have you traveled?”

Jeff Selingo, author of There is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School for the Jobs of Tomorrow, advocates for colleges and universities to start defining themselves through a set of experiences rather than a set of majors.

“When you look at the research on study abroad, more and more students talk about how that was a critical experience in their undergraduate career,” Selingo says. “But the fact of the matter is that it’s becoming increasingly expensive to study abroad, so can we create more cross-cultural experiences for students, whether it’s just within the United States, or even shorter experiences overseas?”

Erin Willis is in charge of creating those experiences for students at Fredonia. The Assistant Director in the Office of International Education, Willis works to find affordable study abroad experiences that create meaningful change in students’ lives. 

Her own life changed in high school when she met her best friend, Thawab, a Syrian-American Muslim now living abroad. Their relationship precipitated an unfolding path in Willis’s life that led to study abroad experiences in South Africa and Rawanda, volunteer experiences in the Middle East, and an intense curiosity about how Americans relate to cultures abroad.

Given her curiosity, it’s no surprise she finds current events distressing;

Jon-Ryan Maloney: You’ve told me that the news often makes you angry. What’s making you angry in the current political climate?

Erin Willis: I would say that there have always been things that were upsetting, but as of late I’ve lived in a bubble which has made today’s news stories all the more troubling. Around the time I graduated from high school I had started thinking about how Thawab and her family were perceived and how I could change that. For my first semester of college I went to a small liberal arts school in Rochester and I took a freshman seminar focused on world religions. We had to read a book by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is a former Somali Muslim who had terrible experiences as a child. But she was representing those experiences as, “all of Islam is evil, it’s so awful and oppressive.” In many ways her experiences were true of the culture she grew up in, but I remember students in that class taking that to be the ultimate truth — that this one experience is all that Islam is. I was so angry that this was the one view that everyone was getting. I asked the professor if I could do a counter-argument and present it to the class. At that point I was interested in documentary filmmaking, so I made a documentary about my best friend and her family and what their lives were like as Muslims, and I presented that to my class. For every experience there’s a counter-experience, and if we can show some compassion and understand that that’s true, it can help us relate to people.

But going back to the news today, what’s making me angry is that for a while we lived in this bubble where many of us perceived our culture as post-racial. We thought racism was long gone because we had Barack Obama as a black president, or Islamophobia doesn’t really exist anymore because we’re living in this liberal democracy. We’re seeing that that was never true, and continues to not be true.

JRM: How so?

Willis: Obviously our president has said some pretty awful things related to Islam, but we’re also living in a society that has demonized an entire religion, and has forgotten that there are many experiences in a religion with more than one billion people practicing. We see a lot on the news about Islam, we hear a lot of scary language about it, but the people that I know that practice Islam — that’s not who they are.

JRM: When you made that documentary, what was your counter-experience?

Willis: It was about what it’s like in an American Muslim family. It’s a very small view for sure, but for many people in my class they probably didn’t even know what it looked like to be in a Muslim household. That’s what I was trying to portray, that this is what it looks like here in the States to be Muslim. Not everyone that practices Islam is this violent, aggressive, oppressive person.

JRM: So when the travel ban was announced, what was your reaction, as a person or as a public figure here?

Willis: Personally I felt sick and heart-broken. I didn’t know anyone directly affected by the ban, but it was scary for me to think, “Okay, this is the first step. Where does it go next?” For example, I have a friend who is Yemeni who travels to Canada often for medical treatment, and I was thinking, “Even though she has a U.S. passport, does that really protect her from what might come next?”  Or my best friend who now lives abroad, when she tries to return to the United States and her passport says that she was born in Damascus, Syria, will she be able to enter freely? So personally, that’s what I was afraid of. As a public figure, the travel ban was complicated. I remember the day after the ban was announced I was having a conversation with Terry Brown (Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs) and Naomi Baldwin (Director, Office of International Education) about our role and about what we’re supposed to do as staff. If we do nothing we’re alienating a certain group of people, and if we do something we’re alienating a group of people. The travel ban put us all in a hard spot as administrators. In the end we decided that we should take a stand in some capacity. Terry Brown asked our office to do educational programs based on the ban. In our weekly international student coffee hour we had Political Science professors come in and answer questions from the international students here. We also did a group reading of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Reed Library, which was one of my favorite events that I’ve ever done. We had about 200 people. We printed the UDHR in different languages so people could read it in their native or second language.

JRM: I’m thinking back to my college experience. Study abroad seemed like something nice to do, and something I probably could have afforded, but it would have been hard to get me away from campus. You’ve said that it’s still difficult to get students away from campus. How do you market study abroad to students here, and meet them where they’re at?

Willis: Students love Fredonia’s campus so much. They have so many leadership opportunities and clubs, or they might be doing research, so it’s hard to get students to think beyond this campus. First of all, meeting students where they’re at is about working with current students to market study abroad to their peers. I don’t believe in passive recruitment — me waiting for students to come to my office and see me. If they were like you, or even me, as an undergraduate, they’d probably never do that. I believe in a more active form of marketing. We have study abroad ambassadors who go into classrooms and talk for ten minutes about their experiences. It’s not so informational as it is personal. They’re telling stories and engaging the class in a way that allows students to imagine what it would be like to spend time abroad. I like that because you’re reaching students who may have never thought about studying abroad.

JRM: How many of our students choose to study abroad?

Willis: Right now we’re at about 16-18% of students.

JRM: What else can students do besides study abroad that would get them a global experience?

Willis: What’s really good about study abroad is that it takes students out of their bubble, puts their lives on pause for a second, and makes them see a new way of being or doing. Other ways students can do this are service learning projects within the United States, which is large enough to have different issues and cultures to give students a chance to experience something new. I have a friend who has led service learning projects in Appalachia, and she has also taken students to a homeless LGBT shelter in Raleigh, North Carolina. It allows students to dig into social issues in those areas, and get to know people that they never thought they’d have anything in common with, then take that experience back with them as formative. They can also do Alternative Spring Break.

JRM: What’s Alternative Spring Break?

Willis: The same thing as service learning, it’s just that instead of going on a traditional college spring break they do a service project somewhere in the United States.

JRM: Terry (Brown) and I talked a lot about the presence of international students on this campus. I tried to explain that that isn’t something I would have noticed when I was in college. How do you talk to students about the importance of having an international presence on this campus?

Willis: I would even add having an international student here as a way to gain a global perspective. One of reasons I think study abroad is so important is because it helps our students understand international students more. I just read an essay by a student who studies in Italy, and she said that as a result of her experience in Italy she could understand the struggles that international students or tourists have here in the States. That is such a profound thought and that kind of empathy will be so valuable to use in her future personal or professional life. When I was abroad I remember having to go to a grocery store for the first time in Nairobi, Kenya, and how overwhelming it was: everything was different and scary. If we look at that on the flip-side, think about an international student going to Walmart for the first time. It’s probably unlike anything they’ve experienced, it’s completely massive and there’s so much stuff, it almost leads to sensory overload. Think of how scary that must be, especially if they’re going by themselves.

JRM: I never thought about that.

Willis: Every semester Bond Benton (Associate Professor of Communications) does a panel with the international students in his classes. The American students can ask the international students questions about their home countries and culture. That’s a really great way to bring that idea to students without intimidating them.

JRM: In terms of study abroad, what are you thinking about right now?

Willis: I’m concerned about how the new U.S. budget will affect some of the things that I do here. Nothing is necessarily on the cutting board, but I have some fears that the new budget will cut scholarship programs and Fulbright exchange programs, and how that will affect the ability of some of the students that I work with to go abroad.

JRM: You’re talking about people who might not otherwise be able to afford to go abroad?

Willis: Exactly. This is something I have to worry about all the time, but this year it feels more real than before. For example, our office has worked really hard to promote the Gilman Scholarship on campus, which gives students up to $5,000 to go abroad. It’s only for students that receive the Pell grant, so these are high-need students, and preference is given to first-generation college students, students of color, students with disabilities, and veterans. I just hope that we can keep encouraging students to go abroad with that kind of opportunity in mind. At this point, we’ve had ten Fredonia students win, and they’ve won over $40,000 to support their experiences. That’s money directly in their pocket which goes a long way in helping support what can be the most important thing they do as undergraduates.

JRM: Are there many students who can’t afford to go abroad?

Willis: It’s pretty evenly split here. Some students have the privilege of their parents paying for the majority of their college education, including study abroad. Then we have students who are really high-need. For those students I try to find programs that aren’t going to stretch their budget exponentially. Luckily they have so many choices that sometimes it’s possible to find programs that are manageable for them.

JRM: I want to come back to talking about the travel ban. I listened to a conversation between the writer Sam Harris and Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip. Adams explained the travel ban as a business negotiation in which you make an outrageous offer, then work your way back towards the middle where you wanted to be all along, in this case on immigration policy. But on the other hand you think about how much damage this rhetoric does. What do you think of that, because I’m not sure what to think?

Willis: To some degree I wonder if that’s even a concern. I watched Trump’s inauguration address and I remember how much it was about, “America First.” I think that’s really troubling because I have a belief that there’s no country or culture that’s better, or first. But I wonder if it even matters to them, how this rhetoric might affect our relations with our allies, and how it might affect our reputation in the world.  Certainly, the rhetoric is a means of negotiation, a way of saying that other countries need to pull their weight. But I think that the world is so connected at this point, so complex, that it is not as easy as “America First” makes it seem. There are major concerns all over the world that require more collaboration than ever before. It feels to me that this is not the right time to be choosing such nationalistic rhetoric. But, of course, this is something that we are seeing in other parts of the world, though perhaps not as pronounced as it is here. Based on my own experiences, and hearing from students who have been abroad, the majority of the world is concerned with what is happening here, and that should give us pause.

JRM: That’s interesting. I lived in Montana for a year and I had a friend who was concerned about Americans going abroad and teaching English. She explained it as a way for us to spread our influence around the world. “Be like us.”

Willis: There’s a sort of colonialism to teaching English, or doing volunteer projects abroad. I actually did teach English abroad for a short time. Before I went I had this idea that I was going to be able to change everything and help everyone. What was even worse was that I had no knowledge of the complex cultural and social issues that existed in Beirut, where I volunteered. Now I know that is not a good mindset to go into a volunteer experience with. I now try to teach outgoing students to research their host culture before going abroad, because it will not be like the United States.

JRM: Given that a lot of college students will eventually do these things, what sort of mindset should they be going in with?

Willis: They should be going in with the idea that they aren’t there as much to teach as they are to learn. It’s really important to be open to learning about that culture without being judgmental. Here in the States we’re taught that we do everything right and we’re the best culture in the world. One of the best things about going abroad is that you see a culture that’s very different, but you’re able to see the good and bad of that culture, and the good and bad of your own culture. You’re not going in with this white savior complex, but, “What will I learn from this experience? And how can it change me?”

JRM: What else is important in this conversation that we haven’t talked about?

Willis: I think that one of the most important things that students can get from an experience abroad is the realization of how little you actually know about the world, and even the U.S. We do an evaluation for all our students that go abroad. I was just reading through them this morning. One of the questions is, “How have you changed as a result of your experience abroad?” A lot of students say that they’re more independent or more mature, but one student said, “I realized I don’t know anything about the world.” That’s a good thing, because you learn some humility, you learn empathy, and you can take the best parts of your host culture home and embed it in your life.
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If you’re interested in studying abroad, you can visit Erin Willis in LoGrasso Hall, call her at 716-673-3451, or e-mail her at erin.willis@fredonia.edu.

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