Students lobby administrators to reform Tufts-in-Talloires program

Lake Annecy is pictured behind the town of Talloires, France on Sept. 27, 2015. (Courtesy Kathleen Schmidt)

Fourteen students of color who participated in the Tufts-in-Talloires program at Tufts’ European Center in Talloires, France this past summer have been meeting this semester with administrators in an effort to make the program more inclusive for all students, particularly students of color.

The meetings began in response to an incident that took place this summer, in which a group of students of color who were attending the Tufts-in-Talloires program were denied entry into Le Bowl, a bowling alley and nightclub in nearby Annecy, on June 25 for “overtly racist reasons,” according to an open letter published on Oct. 11 by the group of 14 students.

According to the European Center’s websiteTufts-in-Talloires is a six-week summer program in which students take two credit-bearing courses taught by Tufts faculty at the European Center and reside with host families in Talloires and other neighboring communities.

Student concerns focused on the program’s response to the incident and its transparency, along with its general commitment to students of marginalized identities.

Two meetings have taken place thus far, which have included the 14 students, as well as administrators including Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Provost Mark Brimhall-Vargas, Dean of International Education and Extended Programming John Barker and Senior International Officer and Associate Provost Diana Chigas. Associate Dean of Student Success and Advancement Robert Mack also attended one of the meetings, according to the group of students.

In addition to the June 25 incident, students were also concerned with the Sept. 26 email statement to the Tufts community from Tufts European Center Director Gabriella Goldstein. In the statement, Goldstein affirmed Tufts’ commitment to creating a positive experience for all students at Talloires. 

“To [the affected] students specifically, and to all students who would wish to come to Talloires, I wish to reiterate my personal and sincere commitment to create a summer experience that is welcoming and supporting of students of color and other students from marginalized backgrounds,” the statement reads.

In their open letter, the students criticized Goldstein’s statement for inaccurately describing the incident and for covering up the European Center’s inadequate response to the incident.

“The response of [Goldstein] was uncertain and delayed. She even turned to us for guidance in how to address the issue of discrimination, something clearly not mentioned in her letter. Moreover, she seemed more concerned with the host family appreciation banquet, after the incident, than with our situation,” the letter reads.

Goldstein refuted those claims, asserting that the European Center was active and comprehensive in its responses.

“We have worked actively to bring this incident to the attention of a number of local and national governmental offices in France, including police, the office of the mayor of Annecy, the French Ministry of the Interior and local social and anti-racism organizations,” she told the Daily in an email.

While this incident in particular prompted the students to speak with Tufts administrators, there were many other concerns that the group of students had about the Talloires program not being as inclusive as it was portrayed to be.

According to a collective statement by the group of students to the Daily, the students are also concerned about the treatment of students attending the Talloires program who received scholarships. Students receiving scholarships were required to complete community service hours and assist in the running of the European Center. However, they said that the scholarship contract contained no specific outline of their duties and the services required of them.

“[The recipients completed] mandatory janitorial services, such as dusting and sweeping,” the group told the Daily in an email. “Scholarship recipients had no choice but to agree to this ‘work.’ If not, scholarships would be revoked.”

Brimhall-Vargas emphasized the divide that these requirements created between those who received a scholarship and those who did not.

“Students who were not on a scholarship did not have any service requirements. But students of color, many of them did [have a scholarship], and the service requirements had been custodial services, which were obviously upsetting,” Brimhall-Vargas said. “They were doing something that other students were not.”

There were also transparency issues surrounding the actual costs of the program, which students said they were not told about upfront.

“Many of us were charged at different times and different prices for the program. We were not aware that some classes would be more costly than others, which caused additional stress on [us],” the group of students told the Daily.

As a result, one of the students’ demands called for “complete transparency regarding the cost of the program and the distribution of funds.”

Goldstein noted that this lack of clarity stemmed from technical issues, adding that administrators plan to resolve them before the program begins in summer 2017.

“We are actively working on figuring out how to remedy this situation so that students have a clearer understanding of what they are being charged for … There will also be a more specific list of what is actually included in the cost of tuition,” she told the Daily in an email.

This is not the first time such concerns about the Talloires program and the European Center have been raised. A Sept. 28, 2015 article in the Tufts Observer highlighted problems with host families making students feel unsafe and the European Center being ill-equipped to tackle such concerns. In response, Brimhall-Vargas noted that the administration had been actively looking at ways to resolve those concerns.

“One of the things that [Chigas] has suggested is that we’re going to review the processes by which host families are brought in, how they are evaluated and what exactly would need to happen to remove a host family,” Brimhall-Vargas said.

Both Barker and Brimhall-Vargas said that it was important for the administration to respond to student concerns about the European Center in a timely manner.

Barker noted that the decentralized structure of Tufts’ administration may have hindered the European Center from giving adequate support to the students affected by the incident of racial discrimination. Unlike other Tufts programs abroad, which Barker oversees, the European Center is under the purview of the Office of the Provost, rather than Arts and Sciences and Engineering (AS&E), he said.

“[Tufts is] a very decentralized place, very big with a lot of complexity in the departments,” Barker said. “Some overlap needs to happen. There’s a concentration of how [different departments] can help one another, and that’s what we want to look for in the future.”

According to the students’ statement to the Daily, such lack of synchronicity had contributed to the European Center’s inadequacy in providing diversity training and resources, such as information on the cultural milieu of Talloires, and the lack of a dispatched staff member dedicated to supporting students of marginalized identities during the program.

“Throughout the duration of the program, race was seldom discussed, and issues of race or discrimination were downplayed and dismissed as ‘cultural differences’ by [Goldstein],” the group said. “This tied into [Goldstein’s] efforts to paint a paradisiacal image of Talloires, when it is far from that.”

Additionally, the group also demanded that the administrators establish a pre-program panel for all Tufts-in-Talloires participants about racism, homophobia and Islamophobia in France, institute diversity training for all European Center staff, better prepare host families for the various identities that Tufts students might have and remove host families who have expressed intolerance against students in the past.

These demands echo some of the initiatives that the Study Abroad office, which overseas Tufts-run programs except the Talloires program and another summer program called Tufts-in-Annecy, has implemented for Tufts’ abroad programs to ensure students have the smoothest possible transition when studying abroad. According to Barker, these efforts range from pre-departure briefings on overseas cultures to the role of the resident director in each abroad program.

“We review host families all the time … We continue to refine our policies and talk about the changing nature of the world and of safety,” he said. “Our resident directors are real professionals who understand the culture. We typically hire people from that country or who really have a background in that country. They are experts at what they do and are really prepared to deal with these issues.”

The affected students acknowledged that in their two meetings with administrators, the administrators — particularly Brimhall-Vargas, Chigas and Barker — displayed great willingness to standardize procedures for responding to acts of discrimination and assault across all of Tufts’ abroad programs.

“[At the first meeting, we] agreed to improving the Tufts-in-Talloires website, adding personal anecdotes from students of color who had studied abroad in Talloires,” the group said.

Chigas added that funding would be provided for an additional staff member to serve as a resource for students of marginalized identities.

Barker advised students studying abroad or at Talloires to speak to any of the Student Affairs offices on campus about any issues of discrimination, assault or other concerns during their time abroad.

[Dean of Student Affairs] Mary Pat McMahon is a good intake point, and student concerns can then be filtered out from her office to the appropriate place,” he said. “But conversation is always good. Whoever you feel comfortable talking with — whether it’s the Group of Six, or Counseling and Mental Health — you should have that conversation with.”

Looking ahead, the group of students expressed a desire to hold the administration accountable for its commitment to making changes to Tuft- in-Talloires and the European Center. They also hope to meet again with the administration soon.

“We hope a connection has been created between administrators and students to ensure the quality of the Tufts-in-Talloires program,” the group said. “We intend to hold Tufts University accountable for its complacency in the face of discrimination. If we, the students, do not, then who will?”