Local NMC Students Traveled To Morocco Earthquake Epicenter Months Before Disaster Struck
By Craig Manning | Sept. 24, 2023
When a devastating earthquake ripped through Morocco on September 8, it hit awfully close to home for some Traverse City locals. That’s because the disaster in question struck Morocco’s Marrakesh–Safi region, right near where a group of students from Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) spent time this past summer as part of a study abroad program.
Jim Bensley is the director of international services and service learning for NMC, as well as a board member for the college’s International Affairs Forum event series. A decade ago, Bensley helped launch the Office of Outreach Services at NMC, with the goal of expanding opportunities for students to travel and learn outside of the United States.
“Before that, we would have the occasional study abroad opportunity, usually set up by a faculty member,” Bensley explains. “But there came a time when we really wanted to make [study abroad] a touchpoint for students and what they might be able to accomplish while they were here to study. The Office of Outreach Services was born out of that back in 2013, and I was its first director.”
Since then, study abroad has become an integral part of NMC. Bensley says the Office of Outreach Services sets up 6-7 study abroad opportunities per school year, and has “sent over 525 students to 24 different countries in the nine years that the program has been active.” (It was paused during COVID.) The program has made NMC “the leading community college for study abroad in Michigan,” according to Bensley.
While students from these programs visit locations all around the world, Bensley thinks study abroad trips to Morocco have been particularly impactful for NMC pupils. He personally led the college’s first visit to the northwest African country in 2017 as part of his world cultures class, and found the experience so transformative for his students that he plotted a repeat trip this summer.
“I wanted my students to be aware of what a Muslim nation would be like, because part of my world cultures class is about trying to understand that religion and how it corresponds to culture and political movements,” Bensley tells The Ticker. “So, we went to Morocco, and we had some Moroccan college students travel around with us, and then we also spent time with host families both in the city and in a rural area. The whole experience gave my students a really good insight into what the culture is like there, and how many similarities we actually have between our cultures.”
In June, Bensley led another study abroad trip to Morocco, taking students on a similar city-and-country journey that included time in Rabat (Morocco’s capital) as well as in a small village in the foothills of the High Atlas mountains, near Marrakesh. That small village sits just 20 miles from the epicenter of this month’s earthquake.
The 6.8-magnitude quake is the strongest earthquake recorded in Morocco in over a century, and the deadliest to impact the country since a 1960 disaster that claimed 13,000 lives. So far, nearly 3,000 deaths have been reported, with another 5,600-plus people injured. Per UNICEF, the earthquake affected more than 300,000 people in the Marrakesh and Atlas Mountains regions, including 100,000 children.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, Bensley quickly reached out to NMC’s host families in Marrakesh. Those families are safe, but there has been considerable damage to their village and the surrounding areas.
Lucas Watson, one of the students who took part in the NMC trek to Morocco, tells The Ticker he was actually talking with a few friends from Marrakesh and Rabat when the earthquake struck. “It surreal for me, and clearly terrifying for them,” he says of that moment. “So often when something like this happens, you hear about it on the news and think, ‘Oh, that’s terrible.’ But then you just kind of stop thinking about it. It can all feel so distant, and we all have our own lives to worry about. But having been [to Marrakesh], and knowing people that were being affected directly by what happened, it definitely adds a whole new level of perspective.”
For Belle Marshall (pictured, farthest left), another study abroad student, the trip to Morocco and the ensuing earthquake have inspired some deep personal reflection about how she wants to spend her career. Marshall is currently studying at NMC to become an LPN (licensed practical nurse). After visiting Marrakesh, building relationships there, and now observing the devastation in that region from a distance, she’s considering joining up with Doctors Without Borders and pursuing a career in travel nursing.
“[Traveling to Morocco] helped me realize that we are all a lot more connected than we think we are,” Marshall says. “People halfway across the world are dealing with the same things and feeling similar emotions that I am, which is really a beautiful thing, in my opinion.”
Bensley isn’t surprised his students formed such strong bonds with Marrakesh and the people who live there.
“While staying with these families, my students did everything from washing clothes, to helping them cook dinner, to watching their kids,” Bensley says. “We did a service project where we took a bunch of graffiti off a bus stop (pictured, right) and we painted it with some nice imagery. We really felt like, even for a short time, we were connected to that community. And it's amazing how that happens. You think, ‘Oh, it’s just 3-4 days in a place.’ But once you're living with people, even that much time really makes an impact and an ingrained memory that you carry with you.”Comment