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Welcome to the 5-Week Linguist Show. This week I want to share with you my amazing guest, Dr. Tamara Walker. She’s doing some amazing work. She’s a Professor of History, published author, she’s published numerous times in The Guardian and she’s got a couple of books coming out with, I believe, Crown next year. Brilliant woman who’s doing amazing work in the world, and I’m just going to let the interview speak for itself. We’re going to put some links. She talks about her foundation and the amazing work that she’s doing and how we can help out. Again, thank you for listening.
Welcome to the 5-Week Linguist Show. This week I have a guest who has some amazing projects going on and writing and books, and there’s so much to talk about. This is Dr. Tamara Walker, yes? Okay, and can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your teaching, and-
Sure. Yeah. So, I am a Professor of History. I teach Latin American history at the University of Toronto and I also co-founded and co-direct a non-profit called The Wandering Scholar, which is focused on making international education opportunities accessible to high school students from low income backgrounds. And those are kind of related pursuits; my day job and the non-profit, since I wouldn’t have become a historian of Latin America had I not had an early experience of travel in my school when I went to Mexico. And it really changed the course of my life. It led to me studying abroad in college and pursuing the career that I have now, so it’s with that in mind that I, along with my partner, Shannon O’Halloran Keating, decided to found this organization to make those experiences available to students like us.
That’s amazing. So, I believe that you grew up in Colorado, is that right?
Did you do your undergraduate in Colorado and then sort of went… Is that right?
No, I did my undergraduate in Philadelphia. I went to the University of Pennsylvania for undergrad. So, from the time I turned 18, I left home and have continued to just be away from Colorado.
And then, but you also… Congratulations, that’s Ivy League, that’s quite an accomplishment. Did you tell me that you studied in Mexico as a high school student, is that right?
And this is kind of what everything… Can you tell us about that, please?
Yeah. So, I went to this high school that had an interim program, is what they called it, and it was basically a way to spend Spring Break doing something productive or constructive. And so, students had the chance to either work at a shelter, a homeless shelter, a domestic violence shelter, to do different types of community service projects, to hone their interest in theater or the arts, or if they had taken language classes, to study overseas. And so, my first year of the program I was able to go to Mexico and then I studied French the next year basically to be able to go on the class trip to Paris and to Lyon. So it was through this amazing program that my high school had offered, that, had I not gone to that school and not gotten a scholarship to go to that school, I never would’ve had those opportunities. Because I started out at a public school in my neighborhood in Denver that didn’t even have language classes, much less these kinds of programs.
Yeah. So it just was a completely different world and a completely different world of opportunity, and I happened to be able to experience it and create the life that I have now because of it. So that was very much the idea behind The Wandering Scholar; just sort of recognizing that it’s not for lack of ability or interest in these sorts of experiences, but for lack of opportunities, especially for low income students who bring a lot to the experience, too. That was kind of the idea behind The Wandering Scholar; that we recognized that low income students, many of whom are first generation American or who will be the first generation in their family to go to college, have a resilience and life experiences that only make cross-cultural exchanges richer. That they bring a perspective to their host countries that a lot of students from more privileged backgrounds don’t have, that allow them to connect with people in their host cultures differently and on a deeper level.
And so, we’re very much a scholarship program that creates the financial conditions for students to travel, but part of the understanding is that they also bring something really impressive and powerful to the table. It’s not an act of charity that is making them have these experiences, but a recognition that they are the exact folks that need to be experiencing these trips and representing the US when they travel.
Can I ask, do you ever speak at any of the… I always coat everything with the lens of language, even the language of culture is completely linked, so those are a lot of the organizations that I have a lot to do with. Organizations like ACTFL and AATSP, where you have a lot of contact with teachers, and people who would… basically huge fans of what you would be doing. I would’ve been a fan had I known about this before recently, when I got a chance to read this excellent article that you wrote. I wouldn’t have known about that. And I read all the news, everything that comes to me, because I’m really interested in that and I think that most foreign language teachers are. We want to support this for so many kids, so…
Yeah, that’s such a good idea. And, no, because we have… For our first couple of years… We’ve been around for 10 years at this point and, for the bulk of our life as an organization, we have had partners who kind of promote the work we do to students who come to them. The travel partners that we work with; Smithsonian Student Adventures and Where There Be Dragons, and they already have a built in base of people who are interested in their programs, and usually what happens is that they send students our way who are interested in the programs but can’t afford to participate in them. And we’ve done a little more and more each year of recruiting our own students and working with particular schools and particular cities, but we’re still trying to reach those students who are interested in foreign languages but might not think of travel as something that is in the cards for them, and convince them that that is something very much that they can take advantage of.
And so, that’s such a great idea, is to reach out to the teachers that would be able to then put us in touch with the students who we want to apply to our program.
You’re an outstanding writer and they do publications online, both… that outreach to teachers, so I’ll send you some links to those organizations. Can you tell us about where some of the students have gone and what some of the projects have been?
Yeah. So, one of the components of our program is not just that we provide scholarships to students but that we expect that they will create what we call documentation projects. And it’s basically a research project that the student takes on in their host country, with the idea being that they treat their host country as the site of knowledge, right, and a place that can help them better understand topics of history or social issue, or something related to food and culture that they’re interested in. And so, prior to their trip, during our pre-departure curriculum, we have the student identify the topic that they’re interested in and start to think about what they need to know, what they need to read, who they need to talk to, in order to carry out their documentation project.
Part of the idea for that, too, is that so much of the new travel landscape is… or, for a long time pre-COVID, was dominated by service travel, where students would take trips to communities where they would participate in community service projects, building playgrounds, schools, things like that. Working in community centers and things of that nature, and I have critiques of that model and yet that is such a fundamental part of how people, and young people especially, experience travel. And so, our thinking behind the documentation project was to add the different kind of element of that relationship, so it’s not just that you think of travel as an opportunity to serve other communities, especially considering how complex those issues tend to be, but that you can think of the places you travel as places… as I mentioned, as sites of knowledge, right?
As places that have something to teach you, and not just this generic notion of people being poor but happy and things like that, that often become the lessons that people take away from those experiences, but something deeper and more profound and more reflective of a different type of engagement than one that’s just focused on service. So, with all that being in the background, we have sent students to Costa Rica, where, for example, one student created recipes based on what her host mother had prepared for her when she stayed with her.
And all the stories that the host mother told about how she learned to cook these things with her mom and her grandma, and the occasions they would serve certain meals at. We have sent students to Peru. We had one student who went to Peru and had kind of already been interested in poetry and spoken word poetry, and basically his documentation project was to be… It was unstructured and it was basically to be inspired by this place and let his experience shape his art, so he produced a lot of poems around his experience in Peru. And then we, more recently, last summer, which was the most recent summer of our programming because for obviously reasons we don’t have students traveling this summer, we had one student go to Peru again for one month and one student go to Senegal for one month.
And the student who went to Senegal is a high school athlete and really interested in soccer, so he did a documentation project based on soccer and the culture around soccer uniforms that people wear for their favorite players and things like that, and the styles that they emulate that their favorite players wear, like their hairstyles and things like that. And then, the student who went to Peru did something related to cooking, which is a popular topic for our students, where they’re spending time in people’s homes and eating the meals that the families make for them, and it just becomes such a cornerstone of their experiences that they want to then share with people who can’t take the trip for different reasons. Like their family members; it’s a really cool way of keeping the family and friends and community they left behind connected to this travel experience.
So, those are some of the places that they’ve gone and the kinds of projects that they can do, some of which end up being portable, right, from one region to the next. You can do a cooking project in Costa Rica and one in Peru and they’ll look very different depending on what the students’ interests are and what the family makes. But it has been really neat to see how students bring their interests to this travel experience.
Oh yeah. When I was a student, I… I love that idea. I love going to language classes, definitely. Usually when you study language abroad, you might attend university classes but a lot of them are going to be these language… You’re going to go for four hours a day and maybe you study some grammar and some conversation, and then you have the rest of the time to go do whatever, but I really love these kind of projects where people can just really dive into… dig deep into something that really interests them. So, I’ve always been obsessed with regalia. I’ve always been obsessed with regalia from countries because it seemed to me that what I would see in the books, in my foreign language books, were very stereotypical cultural ideas, and it was very different what you encountered. For example, going to… I love looking at McDonald’s menus even though I’m not a huge fan of McDonald’s because it’s a reflection of the local culture.
So, in South Korea they tend to eat the same meals regardless of the time of day, so I always… Looking at the menus are always very interesting, so… or talking to people. I love talking to people, so one of my projects, when I was a student in Spain was, I lined up all of these interviews of local people who did… And I asked them all basically the same set of questions and I wanted a very diverse group of people because I wanted all of these different perspectives. So, it was so informative so I love this idea. I love that starting… I wouldn’t have thought of that in high school. I wouldn’t have had an opportunity to do that in high school so I love that; I love what you’re doing.
Well, and I think I’ve mentioned this to you before, that when I was a graduate student I had a Fulbright.
And I remember being really struck by how homogenous the group of Fulbright scholars I was a part of was. And I had a Fulbright in Peru and they had a gathering of all the people from the Andean region who had Fulbrights, and so there were people from Bolivia, from Ecuador, from Columbia, and they’d all come for this four day meeting for Fulbrights. And I was the only non-white person in the room, and I remember I happened to be seated next to a representative from the Fulbright program in the US and kind of asked about it, and she attributed that to, one, the lack of interest, on the part of students of color, at least from her perspective, in the program and these experiences, but also, maybe more troubling, the lack of qualified applicants from her perspective. And there was a lot that was wrong with that perspective, especially because it assumed an objective measure of quality and qualifications.
But, having said that, I did recognize in my own experience that it was because I’d gone to high school at a place that created these opportunities for me that allowed me to go to Mexico and helped me immerse myself in ways that made me fluent in Spanish that then I improved upon when I studied abroad in Argentina and had a research project that I did there. That all these things made me qualified, right, in their estimation, for that fellowship. And it was because of opportunities, right, so my thinking was, “Okay, how do you create these opportunities for people who don’t go to the kinds of schools that I went to but who, nonetheless, get those experiences and those opportunities outside of school,” especially given just how underfunded a lot of public schools are these days, so that they can put themselves on the path to whatever their version of the Fulbright is, right?
It doesn’t have to be that but the model very much was a Fulbright for high school students, and to emphasize… and that kind of built in the name, The Wandering Scholar, to emphasize that you can also make this an intellectual pursuit and think of yourselves as bringing something really special to the experience. Because I think, sometimes, just having been a scholarship student myself, that there can be a certain amount of baggage attached to having a scholarship. That’s in part why we call it a fellowship, too, because it says something about the student that goes beyond their financial need and emphasizes their own qualifications. And on top of it all we’re kind of giving them these skills and a knowledge base that will, especially when they go on trips with other students who are often more privileged than they are because we’re sending them on travel programs with partners that serve high income students or students from high income families, that they’re traveling with other students and already a lot of the students that we serve are students of color or first generation Americans.
Already they’re different than the students that they travel with, and that difference can often lead to feeling insecure and out of place because they don’t come from money, because they’re not part of the dominant group, and so here we’re giving them something really special and something that sets them apart in a really meaningful way, that makes them leaders. Where they have done a lot of reading and preparation prior to the trip so that they come knowing a fair amount more than their counterparts, and it just gives them an edge and something to be proud of about their experience and having received this fellowship in the first place. So, I think I got away from your question but…
No, no, no, it’s all really… No, it’s really interesting. And I just thought of another question while you were talking. So, again, I always… I am so biased with my language lens, but they could go to English speaking countries and do this as well, couldn’t they? So it’s not just a language experience?
Yeah, absolutely. Especially because the goal is to better understand the culture and to learn something about the culture, and certainly there are English speaking countries around the world that have cultures that are very different than ours, and that’s really part of our goal is to help students understand that. We haven’t… I mean, Costa Rica is obviously a Spanish speaking country but a lot of people there speak English, and so that’s still kind of applies even in those places. And some of the projects are set up so that they don’t have to have language skills if they’re not very strong in Spanish or French, or Wolof, as in the case of the student who went to Senegal, so that they can still find ways to communicate and get something out of the experience.
Wow. That’s amazing. So, how would a student… How could more students… I know you give a really personalized experience and you give a lot of attention and time to each student, so I know that it’s limited in what you can do for that reason, but would students be able to go to your website and apply? Is that how that would work? It would be they could make contact with you and your co-founder?
Yeah. So we have a website; it’s www.thewanderingscholar.org, and we also have social media channels. We’re on Instagram, @thewanderingscholar, and Twitter, @wanderscholar. And we usually post the application for our summer program in December of the year before the program takes place, and we usually announce the recipients of our fellowships in March. We tend to accept just a small number of students, given the amount of programming that we offer and the intensity of it, so usually it’s between two and five fellows per summer. We’re hoping to start serving more students, which is both a question of funding but also infrastructure because we, in addition to providing this pre-departure programming for students, we also pair them with travel mentors who are adults who have had similar experiences and similar formative experiences of travel at high school or at college, and who have, in different ways, incorporated travel into their own professional lives and personal lives, who can basically embody what a grown up wandering scholar would look and sound like. So, that means having volunteers to work with these students, so there’s a lot of people involved in serving our wandering scholars.
We’re also hoping at some point to spread our curriculum to other corners, to maybe high school programs what want to send their students on trips and other travel programs that can implement even for their own students, whether they’re receiving scholarships or they’re not. This kind of model. So, that’s the idea; to build the number of students that we serve in our own programming, and also reach other students through our curriculum. So that, as we enter our 10th year, is kind of a direction we’re hoping to go in.
Can I ask you, and I know we’ve talked about this before but just to be really clear I thought it was really interesting, your story about how your experience abroad… Your language classes, I think, led you to an opportunity to go abroad, and then the going abroad led you to exactly what you’re doing right now. So could you just fill in a little bit of the blanks for us, if we didn’t-
You’ve talked about Cuernavaca, I thought that was really interesting, and then that led you to Peru and then the major focus of your research and your studies.
Yeah. So, in high school it was my sophomore year that I was able to do this program in Mexico, and there was just something about that experience. I had a really amazing Spanish teacher who just instilled a love not only for the language but for the culture and literature of the Spanish speaking world, so I knew that no matter what I did with my life, I wanted to continue to study Spanish and Spanish speaking cultures. So, then, when I went to college I majored in Spanish and Latin American studies. Eventually I ended up being a history major but the idea above all else was to study Spanish so that I could study abroad, because I just kind of made all these decision based on where I could travel, so I ended up studying abroad in Argentina.
And in part that was because I was part of a program that wouldn’t have allowed me to spend more than a semester away from school, so I had this idea that I was going to go back to Mexico for a semester with my college roommate and then do a semester in Spain, but I could only go to one place and what better place, at least in my mind at the time, but the so-called Paris of the Americas, which was what Buenos Aires was because it was kind of a little bit of both things; Europe and Latin America. So I went there and honestly had a really horrible time.
Yeah. Especially because, when I went, this was ’98, ’99, and it was a very particular moment in that country’s history, where they hadn’t really acknowledged their own history of racism, their history of slavery, of African slavery, so I stood out as a black person in this place.
And got stared at a lot and got cat-called, and a lot of innuendo thrown my way, because there were a lot of assumptions that black people and black women in particular in Argentina were from Brazil and there to work as prostitutes. That was just the kind of default unquestioned assumption. My host mother, who was really lovely and really warm and welcoming, would explain that to me and she just didn’t question that assumption, just the racist and sexist assumptions that were wrapped up in assuming that. So it was really difficult but what I was also doing there was research. I was part of an undergraduate program, and a component of the program I traveled on… it was the Butler University… they allowed us to take on independent research projects, and so I did one on multicultural education in Argentina. I was just curious to know how people talked about the history of race and racism in Argentina.
And what I found was that whenever they talked about racism they were talking about the US, that the US was kind of this model. For good reason because the US has a really dark history of racism and of institutionalized racism and segregation that a lot of places around the world understandably hold up as a model of what not to do to your citizenry. But it was strange to me that in a country that had its own history of antisemitism, there had been a bombing of a synagogue in Buenos Aires in, I think, the year before I got there, and I was experiencing racism, that it was still this narrative that treated racism as a problem that only existed in the US and not in its own context. So, that led me to eventually pursue… I went to graduate school for PhD in history with the idea of studying race and racism in Argentina. I ended up changing course and studying the history of slavery in Peru, but now I’m kind of going back to Argentina and thinking about some of the same questions I had when I was an undergraduate.
But that was very much the experience, even for as difficult as it was, that made me want to know more and do more, and just do more thinking around these questions of race and racism in Latin America. So, yeah, so that’s what I ended up doing in graduate school, and writing a book on slavery and Peru and doing other types of scholarly inquiry into these subjects. But, yeah, that’s the long and short of it.
You brought up an important point there; that as amazing and wonderful as travel is, it can be, aesthetically and to your senses and to your mind, there’s also… You learned just as much if not more from the types of experiences that you’re talking about, that you didn’t expect to have.
So, that’s really interesting.
Yeah. And yet, for as much as it was really traumatizing in the moment and there were so many times I wanted to go home during my semester there and would call home, crying, it was really a powerful experience, in part because it, one, brought me closer to my grandparents because my grandfather was born in Alabama, served in the military, had been stationed overseas, and had lived in Austria at a point with my grandma and their two oldest kids. And this was in the 1950s, and I remember telling him a story about something that had happened to me on the way to call him. This was in the dark ages where we didn’t have cell phones and we had to go to these places called Locotorias and make phone calls, and so I was walking to one. So I was doing what I usually did, which was walk to the one that was in my neighborhood, and had a really upsetting experience so I told my grandfather about it when I called home to talk to him.
And it opened him up to sharing some of this experiences in Austria. He said remembered that people would ask if they had tails, if black people had tails, just based on what little they knew about black people and what they were getting out of the US in terms of its really offensive depictions of black people in that time. So it brought us closer together and connected me to an experience that I think… because I was so young… I would say that grandparents are wasted on young people because we end up being so self-absorbed that we don’t always ask them the questions that bring us a deeper understanding of where they came from and then, in turn, where we came from.
Right? So there was so much about his life that I just didn’t know, and still don’t know, right, because he died when I was at graduate school. But in those moments I really came to understand just what incredible experiences he had, and that was something he and I had in common. He had traveled obviously because of his military career, and I was under very different and obviously more privileged circumstances in my travels, but it ended up being a really special part of our relationship, just being able to share our travel experiences together and ask him more about his life overseas. So, in that sense, I don’t regret any of what I went through and obviously it set me on the path to my career, as well, and the kind of thing I do outside of my career.
And I’m sure we’ll get to this as well but I am working on a book on the history of African Americans abroad.
And that very much came out of those early experiences. My personal experiences, my conversations with my grandfather, the recognition that came that our experiences were part of a larger history and weren’t just individual experiences but more collective ones. So, that’s something that I don’t think I would’ve… I don’t think I would’ve had the same relationship to travel and the same kind of through processes had it been a more pleasant experience. You don’t wish bad experiences on yourself or anyone but so much came out of it that’s there’s no way I wouldn’t done anything differently.
That’s so interesting. Yeah, I think you’re the first person I’ve ever heard say… I told you that my bucket list trip, I wanted to go over to Colonia and to Buenos Aires, and it was, at the best Airbnb and, I mean, they’re just like… oh, this thing that I’d wanted to do and the rest. I’ve had just this… I can’t believe this is actually going to happen, and of course it didn’t, and you know what, I still feel very lucky with my circumstances and all of that but it’s just, wow, that’s really… It’s just not a perspective I would’ve… This is not what I wouldn’t imagined somebody… Everyone else I’d known who was studying in Argentina, this is the first time I’ve heard a story like this.
Yeah. And I think it was a moment in time, too. I went back to Argentina last summer and I had an incredible experience, and in part it’s because I understood how different it was in summer 2019 than it was in summer 1999, and part because there have been so many… There’s lots happening internally but there’s also been a lot of immigration from West Africa, from Senegal in particular, and there was already kind of a growing awareness on the part of a lot of people there of their own history and need to reckon with that history. So all that combined to mean that I didn’t stand out nearly as much as I had before, wasn’t getting stared at in the same way. And you’re also a different person 20 years after you experience something, so all of that just made for such a lovely experience. And, again, I don’t think I would’ve appreciated that place either, and the place that it is now and that it was last summer, had I not had the experience I had when I was in college. So all of that together has just kind of been meaningful.
So, for people who would like to donate, contribute, mentor, we’re going to put a link in the episode notes that you can do that. So, I think there’ll be maybe two separate links. I know you have a donate URL; you told me about that, and then another one, just the general site, so if people are interested and maybe know young people that would be interested in this kind of thing, or they could perhaps contribute through mentorship or… Okay.
Yeah, absolutely. And I was just going to add to that the mentorship angle because I know, especially in our current moment, people have a lot of financial concerns and worries and no one can travel anyway, so it’s hard to get people to be enthusiastic about contributing to an organization that’s focused on travel. But we do very much believe in our mission and have, over the past 10 years, really served students in ways that have changed the course of their lives. We’ve had students go on to study abroad in India and Hong Kong and Israel, and major in Arabic and other fields, go on to graduate study, and we know and they’ve told us how essential this experience was to setting the course of their lives. And these are the exact people we want traveling and representing the US, and the best of who we are and staying engaged, so no amount it too small and meaningless for the work that we do.
But, also, aside from financial support we’re always are looking for mentors to work with our students, especially people who hear the name The Wandering Scholar and hear what we do and connect it to their own earlier experiences. Those are the best mentors because those are people who will be able to show our students exactly what can come of their experience in high school because they’re the kind of 20 years later version, or even 10, 15, years later, right? We also welcome younger mentors who are early career and fresh out of college. But it’s just a really meaningful part of the work that we do is to connect our students to adults who can show them what to do with this experience after they have it, and before they have it how to take the best advantage of it, how to prepare for it, what to buy a host family as a gift things like that. So we also welcome… and I’ll include the link so that you can put that in the episode notes because I think that’s a really fun arena to be involved in, and doesn’t cost anything but time.
Oh yeah. Excellent, thank you. Okay, so your books; I want to hear all about… This is so exciting. You’ve got two exciting book projects. One is coming out sooner than the other, of course. Could you talk about that, please?
Yeah. So, one is purely academic and it was the reason I went to Argentina last summer because I’m doing a book on race, gender and visual culture in Latin America, just depictions of people of African descent in art from the colonial period to the present day. So, Argentina’s one of the case studies I used for that book. But the travel book I’m working on is called The Global Green Book, it’s going to be published by Crown and it’s basically a character driven narrative history of African Americans living and working abroad over the course of the past 100 years. Basically starting with figures that are familiar to us, like Josephine Baker when she was in Paris in the 1920s, to people who are lesser known but who’ve had really meaningful, powerful experiences at different points in their personal history and in US history that are really illustrative of important trends and phenomena. So each chapter is about a particular person, a place in the world, and a decade of the 20th and 21st Century, and that…
It’s an extensively researched book so it required time and archives and overseas that has kind of been put on hold because of COVID.
With all of this.
Yeah, so it’ll come out a little later than I’d hoped but it’s still very much a fun project to take on, to just spotlight people and experiences that we don’t talk enough about but are a big part of not just African American but even US history. It says a lot about the US that so many people felt the need and the call to leave the US at different points.
Right. So, this Green Guide, so, you told me about it. So, it’s places that are essentially identified… A collection of… people would say, “This is a good place, this is a safe place. This is a good place to stay,” from all over the world, right, that they put this together?
Right. So, the title, The Global Green Book, is kind of a play on the Green Book which was a collect
The Wandering Scholar provides study abroad experiences for high schoolers from underrepresented backgrounds. https://www.thewanderingscholar.org/
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