First-years return from Tufts Civic Semester in US Southwest

The 2021 Civic Semester cohort is pictured in Saguaro National Park in southern Arizona. Courtesy Isaac Leib

​​In the fall of 2021, Tufts conducted its second Civic Semester, where incoming students can participate in their first semester abroad or in the Southwestern United States rather than starting their college experience on Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus. 

Civic Semester was first launched in the fall of 2019. Jessye Crowe-Rothstein, Tufts’ first-year global programs manager, outlined some of the major changes between the program’s first Civic Semester and its fall 2021 session in an email to the Daily.

“In 2019 we were in Peru, while this year we explored a different location, right here in the US,” Crowe-Rothstein wrote. “The program design had to shift significantly as well, from students living with host families and working in individual placements with nonprofits in Peru, to students living, and working with and learning from organizations, as a group in the [Southwest].”

This semester, first-year students accepted into the program traveled to New Mexico, Texas and Arizona, where they focused on immigrant rights, environmental sustainability and Indigenous sovereignty.

Living between Boston and Nigeria, first-year Biani Ebie has always loved traveling. It was this passion that prompted them to partake in Tufts’ Civic Semester program.

“I really like to explore and try new things,” Ebie said. “I felt like the Civic Semester was a great opportunity for that because I’d never been to New Mexico or Arizona.”

Differing from a typical first-year dorm experience, Ebie explained that the group stayed in different houses for a month or so, Airbnb style.

The first part of the program took place in Truchas, a town in northern New Mexico near Santa Fe. Here, the group met with different organizations and learned about themes relating to immigration and indigeneity within the region. 

Isaac Leib, a first-year who hails from Somerville, MA, joined the program due to both his interest in environmentalism and as a chance to get away from his hometown before returning to it for college. 

Leib explained that one of the activities during the group’s time in northern New Mexico included a conversation with Dr. Christina Castro, co-founder of the Three Sisters Collective, who met with them in Santa Fe to talk about Indigenous sovereignty. Castro spoke about the history of Santa Fe as well as major issues within the city, such as gentrification.  

“Hearing her talk was not at all anything I expected from this trip in general, because it was just so personal and detailed about everything she’s experienced,” Leib said.

Wevhu Tokwe, a first-year, joined the Civic Semester program because they wanted to learn more about the influence of gender in the Southwest. Tokwe grew up in Zimbabwe, where they witnessed instances of gender inequality and gender-based violence. 

 “I grew up experiencing, you know, witnessing, domestic violence. … These social predicaments, they really impacted my life,” Tokwe said. “So when I saw the program developing people to be civic leaders, I felt like … I should try it and maybe develop into a leader, maybe come back home and spread some change with regards to the social predicament that I grew up experiencing.”

Tokwe describes meeting with Dr. Castro as particularly meaningful due to her leadership skills.

“[Castro’s] the best leader that I’ve seen in my life,” Tokwe said. “She would talk about [these] experiences with this energy, with this passion, … talking about the treatment of Indigenous people, how colonization incapacitates them and how the [Three Sisters Collective] is trying to create change.”

They also explained that they were impacted by the way Castro spoke about gender, noting how the organizational structure for certain Indigenous communities is more matriarchal.

“[It was] quite contrary to where I come from, which is like a patriarchal society. … It made me think of gender as more of a construct,” Tokwe said.

On the environmental side, the first-year students, such as Ben Chisam, learned about food sovereignty and the long-lasting effects of the nuclear test sites in Los Alamos, NM. 

“There’s a modern movement globally I think, but definitely in Northern Mexico, to reclaim food sovereignty and be able to grow traditional foods, healthy foods, to detach from the biotech industry which has sort of taken over agriculture,” Chisam, a first-year, said.  

Chisam explained that learning about the intersectionality of environmental issues was particularly impactful.

“Environmental issues aren’t just something really macroscopic like climate change or … eye-grabbing like an oil spill,” Chisam said. “Environmental issues are baked into things like housing and food sovereignty and all sorts of daily aspects of life and then also they’re baked into big systems, like the carceral system, or just general processes of colonization and capitalism.”

After spending the first five weeks in Truchas, the cohort moved on to El Paso, a city whose proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border shifted conversations toward immigrant rights. Ebie explained that the group learned about the militarization of the border wall and how it has become more difficult to cross the border, taking a major toll on migrants. They explained that visiting the border wall in El Paso was an impactful experience. 

“Seeing the border for the first time in El Paso was very shocking because I had never seen the border and being so close to it and being able to touch it was very surreal,” Ebie said. 

The cohort met with an organization called Casa Carmelita, a shelter for transgender  migrants, which is located right next to the border wall. 

“Juarez on the other side [of the border], and El Paso, to a certain extent, has some of the highest rates of femicide in the world, and it’s especially bad with trans women,” Chisam said. “Casa Carmelita does a lot of different things to try and help who they can and when they can.”

After visiting El Paso, the cohort drove further into East Texas, where they spent roughly four days at Big Bend State Park. They then went to southern New Mexico, staying a few minutes away from the Arizona border. 

In Canelo, AZ, Leib recalled meeting with an organization called the Canelo Project, a homestead that emphasizes its applied education center and family-centered community, according to its website. 

Tokwe found this part of the trip to be quite impactful. A woman from the Canelo Project explained that her children have had successful lives without much schooling.

“It was interesting because, growing up, education has always been presented as the only way to make it in life, but … she was so philosophical,” Tokwe said. “She was saying, ‘As a child you are just like a plant, but the education system nowadays is treating people like these holes that have to be filled.’” 

The cohorts themselves received an unconventional approach to schooling this semester. Although the students attended online Tufts courses, much of their learning experience came from group discussions and hands-on activities. 

Chisam explained that the experience he had this semester would encourage him to learn more outside of the context of a classroom.

“For me, personally, I love learning, I love school, and it’s really easy for me to get lost in academia and lose sight of [the] stuff happening outside of the classroom,” Chisam said.

As Leib returns to campus, he is also looking for ways to integrate what he learned during this semester into his life in Somerville. He described how visiting an urban farm in Tucson, AZ was particularly impactful.

“It was just this community-run farm where they grow stuff in the middle of Tucson, and they grow just like vegetables and … have feasts and community gatherings and celebrations,” Leib said. “The whole time I was thinking, I can do that in Somerville, there’s got to be somewhere to do that in Somerville.”

Ebie is also looking to get involved with organizations that are similar to those that they interacted with during the program. 

“Coming back, I look forward to being part of organizations that, in some ways, have the same themes as the program,” Ebie said.

Reflecting on the semester, Tokwe mentioned that they felt they have grown in both their views on education and as a leader. 

“I can’t think of a better way of coming to campus … because I now have a different way of viewing education, and I now have this skeleton of how I want to develop my leadership skills,” Tokwe said. “I formed this community. You know, I now call it family, this cohort.”


COPYRIGHT 2022 THE TUFTS DAILY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.