A Greater Purpose

What Lily Spencer '22 learned through a middle school report on Saudi Arabia fascinated her. It also stuck with her. 

"I have remained interested in the Arab world—it's culture, language, and traditions—and have fostered that interest through books, movies, restaurants, and the news," Lily says.

So when Lily discovered a service travel program to Morocco, she knew she had to apply. With assistance from a Robert Keyes Poole '50 Fellowship, Lily spent three weeks in Morocco last summer engaged in service work in the remote mountain village of Zaouia Ahansal. Located in the High Atlas Mountains, Zaouia Ahansal was founded in the 13th century by an Islamic traveler and scholar named Sidi Said Ahansal, whose mentor encouraged him to establish a religious school. Today, the needs of the village are great and many. The projects Lily and her fellow travelers engaged with were selected by community leaders to address their most immediate of those needs. 

"Our service projects included construction work on a local water cleaning station, working in the public gardens, planting trees, cleaning up trash around the village, and working in the summer program at the local school," Lily notes.

The team's days started early with breakfast at the home of the village Sheikh, followed by Arabic lessons. 

"For about an hour each day we would learn some basic phrases in Arabic that would help us communicate with members of the village who were not familiar with English," says Lily. "After our lesson we would prepare for our morning service project, which would last about three hours; we would return for another three hours of afternoon service work. After dinner our group would meet on the roof of the guesthouse for our nightly meeting. We'd debrief the service we completed, talk about our highs and lows of the day, and discuss what we were looking forward to. It was a great way to tie our service work to a greater purpose and better understand our impact on the community."

Lily also came to appreciate the full impact of her service work in Morocco through an independent research project focused on education in the village. She investigated government funding, the local politics surrounding women in education, the effect COVID had on schooling, and the economic benefit of educating community members.

"I chose this topic after spending time in the local school, teaching children about the water cycle and other environmental topics," Lily says. "We were given different materials for our lessons, and, without many guidelines, asked to design lesson plans that would actively engage the students. Many of my students were girls, which surprised me, and their pure enthusiasm toward learning inspired my research."

As part of her research, Lily interviewed local community leaders. She learned that education in the region is fully funded by the government, but that sending children to school is a decision that is made by each individual family; more conservative families are less likely to send their children to school. And while the overall literacy rate for women is around 65%, it remains much lower in the more rural areas, something that NGO's and supplemental education programs are working to change. 

"The supplemental teaching program that I worked at costs about 10,000 Euros a year and is mainly funded through student travel programs and other nonprofit organizations. That program, which offers local students with extra time in the classroom and more learning opportunities, is not very common across Morocco," Lily notes.

Her research also uncovered the impact of COVID on education in the village: While the government worked to provide online learning for students at every grade-level, many did not have access to electricity, let alone technology. As a result, 70% of students lost a year of learning and had to repeat classes. The supplemental summer program Lily worked with last summer, then, was more important to the village than ever.

"Teaching students in the local village school impacted me quite profoundly. The language barrier made communication in the classroom challenging, but not impossible. I used hand motions and hand drawn pictures to communicate with the students and noticed their eyes glistening when they understood a new word or concept in English," Lily recalls. "There were two boys in my group who were incredibly motivated to learn the words of the water cycle in English. We made a game of who could recite the water cycle the loudest. A few days after our lesson I was walking back from a service project in the gardens, and the two boys were playing on the side of the road. They recognized me as I passed by and began reciting the water cycle at the loudest possible volume they could, including the hand motions of rain falling, water evaporating, and more. It made me so happy to know that the lesson I had prepared and taught was understood by the students, and they were practicing it outside the classroom."

Lily's experience in Morocco was made possible in part by a Poole Grant. Established in memory of Robert Keyes Poole '50, a member of Taft's faculty from 1956 to 1962, Poole Fellowships are awarded each year to enable Taft students to engage in summer travel and projects consistent with Mr. Poole's lifetime interest in wildlife and the environment.