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ASU students experience sustainability in Morocco

Group of students in a van

Evvan Morton is left of photographer and undergraduate student Valeria Borough. The group was traveling by van from the town of Zerkten to the tiny village of Ait Khlef, in the Atlas Mountains, where they hiked another hour up the mountain to help restore and paint a primary school.

June 27, 2016

A diverse group of Arizona State University students experienced a whole new world when they journeyed to Morocco in May to observe and study the complexities of sustainable development in the villages and other locales where it is happening.

Led by Mary Jane Parmentier, a clinical associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society — along with her teaching assistant, Fulbright scholar Carlo Altamirano, a doctoral student in the Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology program — it was the fourth year in a row for this Study Abroad program to the North African Nation sponsored by the School of Sustainability. 

Parmentier’s familiarity with the area and the contacts she’s maintained since serving as a member of the Peace Corps there in the 1980s, along with the unique mix of cultural influences made Morocco an ideal place to study the sustainable development issues that arise from the different priorities among stakeholders and across different contexts.

“Morocco really is a mosaic of cultures,” said Evvan Morton, an Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering doctoral student in sustainable engineering. “There are strong European, Middle Eastern, and African influences. It was fascinating to experience all of these things in one country.”

Morton and her fellow participants visited several Moroccan cities like Fez and the capital, Rabat, the state-of-the-art Noor Ouarzazate Solar Complex, as well as small villages and agricultural cooperatives. The ASU students were even invited into locals’ homes.

“What struck me was their hospitality,” said Morton, who is also pursuing a Responsible Innovation in Science, Engineering, and Society (RISES) certificate from the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. “Everywhere we went they told us several times that we were welcome. We almost immediately felt like a part of the group or family.”

Having coffee in cafe

Carlo Altamirano and Mary Jane Parmentier enjoy a coffee break in Erfoud while waiting for a flat tire on the bus to be fixed.

Morton was impressed by many of the practices she observed.

“Those living in the cooperatives were very proactive,” she said. “The ones that we visited were using solar panels to pump their irrigation water.”

According to Morton, the government facilities in Rabat were modern and well-appointed, and the ASU group learned a lot when they took part in presentations at the University of Marrakesh.

They weren’t just visitors, however.

“Some of us got to present our own research there,” she said. “We got to share our ideas about what sustainability means to us and how it can help both Morocco and the US.”

The participants discussed and digested what they’d learned in nightly class meetings, and one-on-one time was available with Parmentier and Altamirano while traveling between locales and at other times. While the itinerary was robust, there were times when the students had free time to explore or conduct research on their own.

“It was interesting to learn new things on my own and to compare my own perspective with my classmates’ and Mary Jane’s experiences,” Morton said. “I did gain a lot of experience during the trip. I learned a lot about social science and how to use interviews and personal experience as data for academic application.”

The Study Abroad program has evolved from year to year, becoming more culturally immersive and more focused on evaluating sustainable solutions already being implemented. To enhance those aspects, all three weeks of the program took place in Morocco this year, rather than splitting time between that country and Spain as in previous years.

“Morocco is especially interesting,” Parmentier said. “There is a proliferation of over 120,000 nonprofit ‘associations.’”

These groups, with government encouragement, engage in a very wide range of solution-oriented activities, such as empowering women, repairing public buildings, and supplying schools in remote villages. The ASU contingent worked with several associations but was also able to meet and interact with university students and government representatives from the Morocco Agency for Solar Energy (MASEN).

Touring a solar installation

Touring the use of solar panels for use in irrigation systems at the Barziane Agricultural Cooperative, near the town of Taznakht, near Ouarzazate.

“Hearing (Parmentier's) experiences living there and her observations about how things had changed from her perspective was hugely beneficial," Morton said. "In our pre-departure preparation session, she taught us some useful Arabic words and phrases and what cultural taboos to avoid.”

Parmentier and Altamirano also served as the group’s principal translators. All of the participating students received funds for the bulk of the programs expense through the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiative and ASU’s Graduate and Professional Student Association.

Morton recommends Parmentier’s program for anyone interested in learning more about sustainable development.

“Anybody can find value in this. We were a diverse group, ethnically but also in age and specialization,” she said.

Other students represented the School of Sustainability, W. P. Carey School of Business and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The group included a distribution of doctoral, masters and undergraduate students.

"A lot of us associate sustainability with just environmental issues, but it’s a lot more than that. It doesn’t really matter what discipline you’re in,” Morton said.

Beyond her research, Morton expressed a satisfying sense of personal development: “I’ve never been to a Muslim majority country before, and this was a good way for me to break way from some of the more negative stereotypes we hear in the West.”

View a gallery of photos from the program.

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