GoAbroad Interview

Alison Elder - Volunteer Adviser

Alison Elder

Alison received her bachelor’s degree in international studies and English from Texas A&M University. She spent a summer studying Arabic in Meknes, Morocco and another researching women’s social issues in Kanpur, India. An avid tennis player and outdoors enthusiast, Alison is happiest in motion. Currently a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, one of her most recent projects is building the capacity of Sahara Service Organization as their volunteer adviser in Boudnib, Morocco.

Volunteer painting a childs hand in Morocco

SSO Volunteer painting kids’ hands for a mural project

What inspired you to pursue a degree and career in international studies?

I started out as an English major, knowing I was good at English and not yet aware of the other options available.  Studying a foreign language was part of the English degree requirements so I decided to go for a challenge and study Arabic.  I fell in love with the Arabic language and culture, got involved with several internationally focused organizations on campus, and eventually added the international studies degree, my true passion, after doing a study abroad program in Meknes, Morocco.  

Along with studying Arabic in Morocco, you also spent time researching in Kanpur, India. How significantly would you say these experiences have impacted your life?

My study and research abroad experiences in Morocco and India greatly enriched my education and perspective of the world and gave me the desire and skills needed to work internationally.  You can read books and take classes about another language, religion, or culture, but there is nothing like going and experiencing it for yourself.  Going to another country with a purpose beyond just tourism forces you to interact with the local people on a more intimate level and that I believe is where a greater understanding of and appreciation for others starts. It forces you to see your own culture from another perspective as well, which I think is very healthy. 

You are now serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco. What surprised you most about Morocco when you arrived?

The incredible generosity of the people. The host family whom I was assigned to live with by the Peace Corps, some members of which I assisted in starting SSO, has become a real family to me. They are always there for me and love me like a real daughter or sister. I never get homesick or bored surrounded by such energy, love, and laughter. They are not an anomaly either. I am so overwhelmed with invitations for meals that I never cook. Never. You cannot enter even the poorest home (or tent) in rural Morocco without being offered a cup of tea and some snacks. I hope to continue this policy of generosity with me wherever I live.

Sahara Service Organization staff members

Meeting with SSO Staff

What does a typical day of work/volunteering look like for you?

I work out in the mornings and teach daily aerobics classes for the women in my town as well as work with local counterparts in teaching an International Youth Foundation life skills curriculum. I spend a lot of time with the people in my town, sharing meals and tea and practicing my Arabic and Tamazight. I also spend a lot of time preparing for bigger projects, such as a series of women’s health workshops I conducted in a neighboring village and, of course, working on promoting, preparing, and implementing the Sahara Service Organization volunteer abroad program.

How do you, and Sahara Service Organization as a whole, help volunteers prepare for and enjoy their time in Morocco?

We offer constant support for volunteers throughout the application process and leading up to departure for the program through our website, pre-departure materials, and promptly responding to any questions or special requests from interested and confirmed participants. We spend a lot of time planning and discussing the program before volunteers ever arrive in country so that when they do all will go smoothly. We carefully select the host families volunteers will stay with and scout out locations and leaders for all projects and activities to ensure volunteer safety, comfort, and enjoyment.

One of the goals of the program is to provide volunteers with the skills necessary to plan and implement their own volunteer projects. This ensures that volunteers are active leaders and organizers in the program, not merely participants, and provides volunteers with valuable and marketable skills to use wherever they go next in life. 

We mix service with immersive learning, exploring, and travel.  

What makes Boudnib, Morocco an ideal place for volunteering abroad?

It is a beautiful and diverse part of the country, in both its natural setting and diverse culture.  Its rural location, untouched by tourists, gives volunteers the opportunity to experience REAL Morocco and the mix of Berber and Arab cultures creates an interesting melding pot of traditions as well. The people are incredibly warm and welcoming and excited to host volunteers and exchange cultures.

Volunteers by a lake in Morocco

Trip with SSO volunteers to a nearby lake

Why is Sahara Service Organization (SSO) unique?

SSO is a true grassroots organization. It was started through discussions between myself as a Peace Corps volunteer and members of the Boudnib community. The program is designed to positively impact as many members of the local community as possible, and in a way that every penny possible (we do some travelling with the program) is recycled back into the local community through our volunteer projects, in placing volunteers with host families, and through connecting volunteers with local artisans and instructors for cultural activities.

One of the primary goals of SSO is cultural exchange and its immersion design ensures that volunteers will feel a part of the community and have opportunities to share their home cultures with Moroccans as well.

How do you make sure volunteers make the most of their time in Morocco?

We spend a lot of time as an organization before volunteers ever even arrive planning the volunteer projects and cultural activities to ensure that volunteers are able to maximize their time in Morocco.  The SSO program has a pretty full schedule in Boudnib, so we organize the camel trek in the middle of the two weeks to allow volunteers the opportunity to relax and recuperate before returning to Boudnib for another full week, and for planning and implementing their personal final volunteer project. We use carefully selected host families so that volunteers are continuously exposed to and thoroughly immersed in the Moroccan culture. Our volunteers and host families were in tears at their final parting in our last program.

Volunteers will walk away with an in depth understanding of this fascinating culture that cannot be learned in books.

Through your own experience, what do you feel is the most important thing about international travel?

Learning about other cultures and ways of life. There are unfortunately a lot of negative and incorrect stereotypes about this part of the world, in particular, and people in other countries often have negative misconceptions about Westerners as well. International travel, especially through programs like SSO that emphasize interaction with locals, brings you into direct contact with real people and real places, and I personally think is the best weapon we have against racism and bigotry in the world.

Volunteers having dinner together in Boudnib, Morocco

Group Meal with Volunteers in Boudnib

What do you enjoy most about working with Sahara Service Organization?

I love getting to share Morocco with other people and seeing how Morocco impacts them. You can’t spend much time immersed in the incredible generosity and kindness of the people here without becoming a better person yourself. I love this beautiful country, and through SSO, volunteers get to see the best parts of it!

I also enjoy seeing the positive impact the volunteer work has on the community. I heard from local youth that the murals our volunteers painted were probably the top Facebook picture background for youth in this community in 2015. The fees from the volunteers helps local families support themselves and participants’ volunteer work encourages volunteerism in local youth. SSO positively impacts everyone involved and that is very rewarding to be a part of.