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Volume 1, Number 2, Spring - Summer 2000

Voicing Concern about Discrimination Abroad: The History and Experience of Voices of Change in Working with US Students in Spain

by Christa E. Sanders, Co-Founder, Voices of Change

When John Ware arrived in Spain back in the early nineties, he was enthusiastic and eager to explore a new language and culture. Like many American students before him, he had long envisioned living overseas. While his decision to come to Spain was a dream come true, John was little prepared for the discrimination he would later face as a Black American student abroad.

Shortly after arriving in Madrid's Barajas airport, John and his traveling companion, a white American male student, gathered their luggage and headed towards the center of town. In route to Madrid by bus and train, the two conversed incessantly about their plans to visit the sites of Spain - the historic monuments, the museums, the towns, etc. The boys could hardly wait to explore the country's capital, mingle with "Madrileños" and practice their Spanish language skills. However, a strange occurrence was taking place in route. John and his companion could feel that all eyes were on them, and the looks seemed to be based on more than curiosity alone. They registered a tinge of disgust, if not fear. Peering into a sea of Spaniard eyes, John was puzzled. Returning the stare, the Spaniards seemed unmoved. It was apparent to John early on in his trip that being "different" in Spain would be a true challenge.

Arriving in Madrid's center, Plaza del Sol, John and his traveling partner began their search for a hotel. Fortunately, like most newcomers to an unfamiliar place, they were well equipped with guidebooks and maps and had already highlighted a few options of affordable hotels. Walking through "Sol" on a hot, sunny afternoon they approached a pension and inquired about the price for an overnight stay. The owner or "dueña" of the pension hesitated initially, but finally managed to stutter that there was no room available. All the while her eyes were focused on John.

Moving on to the next pension, John and his friend received a similar response when inquiring about a room. However this time the dueña gave no explanation as to why no rooms were available. Instead, she shut the door before John and his companion could utter another word.

Continuing their search, their luck seemed to be dissipating. Twelve pensions later, their quest began to feel endless, if not hopeless. "Could Madrid really be completely full?" they wondered. Fatigued and extremely weary, they decided to investigate one last option. John sensing that his race may have been an issue in their search suggested to his friend that he would wait for him as he inquired about the prospect of room availability. His friend departed but returned within minutes with a broad smile on his face and positive news. He had finally found a free double room! Ecstatic they headed down a side street to their new living quarters.

Once they arrived at the pension door the situation dramatically changed. As the dueña, handed the room key over to John's companion, she explained that there was only a room available for him but not for John. Bewildered and frustrated, they asked the dueña why the sudden change. Why was there no room for John? The dueña, clearly annoyed, replied in Spanish, "Because we do not like blacks here nor can they stay here!"

At that point the two realized that the color of John's skin had been playing a key role in the difficulties they had experienced finding a room throughout the course of the day. It also occurred to them that it was the main factor that had caused so much discomfort among the Spaniards on the bus and train in route to the city. John was devastated and extremely disappointed. Just hours after his arrival, he had already come face to face with racial prejudice in Spain. John's experience is not uncommon. Many students of color studying abroad express concern about the difficulties that they face based on their race, ethnic and religious affiliations.

In 1997, I had the great fortune of meeting John Ware. I was emotionally moved by his story and felt driven to aid him in his efforts to combat discrimination. Although I had studied in Spain as an undergraduate in 1990, I was astonished to hear of the accounts of racism John had faced during his years living there.

Within the initial weeks of my return to Spain to work as a counselor for a study abroad program, I realized that John's story resembled many of the experiences of students of color I had spoken with. These students voiced deep concerns about the incidents of discrimination that they and others faced. For example, many Asian-American students reported that they had been treated poorly and teased based on their ethnicity. Latino students shared that they had often been made to feel inferior because they spoke Latin American Spanish. Both African-American and Latina females complained about being objectified as "prostitutes" and "nannies." African-American males protested about being stopped by officials to show their passports for identification purposes. John informed me that in his own years of living in Spain incidents shared by the study abroad participants had unfortunately become quite common place.

John Ware and I decided to take action in the late fall of 1997. We developed an organization for American students called, "Voices of Change." Voices of Change (VOC) is dedicated to combating racism and discrimination and is committed to supporting positive experiences for all students studying abroad. As a consulting and support service for American study abroad programs, our organization equips students with the necessary tools to cope with an incident of discrimination while living overseas. We seek to enlighten and educate study abroad program participants, faculty, staff, and European host families about the overall theme of discrimination and its potential impact on students. We also bring together American and European students through a variety of cultural activities to celebrate diversity and discuss themes of racism and discrimination. Such activities serve to breakdown cultural barriers and increase bridges of cross-cultural understanding between American and European students. At last, we assist and counsel victims of discrimination.

In our experience in Spain, we have found that students of color are not the only population affected by discrimination. Students have stressed that nationality is strongly linked to discriminatory experiences. Students explain that simply being an American citizen also makes you an automatic target for problems throughout Europe and the rest of the world. Some American women say that they are frequently subjected to such stereotypes as being "sexually loose" and/or "easy" and may be placed in high, at-risk situations as a result.

Although our experience in Spain has shown us that American students of color report more frequent incidents of racism/discrimination, many American students could, undoubtedly, be affected by discrimination. For example, being a member of a religion different from the majority can be a challenge. Jewish students have particularly mentioned that they have felt slight hints of anti-Semitism while living in Spain. Students affiliating with a certain sexual orientation (e.g. homosexual, lesbian, etc.) could be ostracized. Physically challenged students as well as overweight students could also experience obstacles.

What can students do should they be faced with discrimination overseas? Our student workshop, "Living and Coping with Discrimination in Europe" addresses this issue. We encourage students to:

  • Be informed about legal rights while abroad (particularly legal rights as they pertain to discrimination).
  • Be in contact with organizations that combat discrimination in the immediate area.
  • File written reports/complaints at a local police station or contact the US embassy.
  • Be aware of the types of prejudice one might experience as a member of a minority group. (Being prepared is key towards knowing how one might react in a given situation.)
  • Carry a passport or a photocopy of a passport with another piece of identification with a personal photograph (i.e. student international identification card, license, etc.) in case one is unexpectedly stopped by the officials.
  • Contact former program students of different racial, ethnic, religious etc. backgrounds to inquire about their previous experiences studying abroad.

Voices of Change (VOC) believes that all American students need to be informed about discrimination outside of the United States, but should not be discouraged about the prospect of studying abroad. We encourage students to always remain positive and reap the benefits of an education overseas. We stress that racism and discrimination is not exclusive to Spain alone but is a "global issue" that affects countries throughout Europe, the United States and the world.

We encourage students to not allow an individual's ignorance to hinder their own progression and narrow their outlook while living in another country. Studying abroad is a special opportunity to broaden one's horizons, gain new insight, and develop a unique and more open-minded perspective of the world. To this end, we have also developed specific coping mechanisms students can adopt should they be faced with an incident of racism/discrimination. We suggest students:

  1. Maintain pride and self-confidence. Every student should maintain a strong sense of self. Being different is a powerful strength!
  2. Assert and address people tactfully. When faced with a negative and/or prejudice comment or action, attempt to address the individual in a calm and civil manner. Explain that you did not understand what they meant or did not appreciate their statement or behavior. We do warn students not to exercise this step if they feel the situation is potentially threatening or dangerous! Also, language ability will naturally determine how well one can express that he/she disapproves of what has been said and/or behavior that has been displayed.
  3. Talk to your director, professors, counselors, etc. These individuals are available to help assist students and make studying abroad an academically and personally enriching experience. Students who have experienced discrimination should especially share their concerns with these individuals who can further assist them in the process of getting help.
  4. Use your network of friends (new and old). Students can also discuss their difficulties with friends they have become close with on their programs or contact friends at home. Having a support network is essential!
  5. Talk with your European host families. The European host family is an especially significant part of the student's overall cultural experience abroad and is usually quite eager to assist students. They may also act as another source of support that can be helpful, particularly if the student begins to feel negative about the society he or she is living in.

VOC believes that study abroad programs also need to take a firm stance in fighting discrimination abroad and must prepare students for potential discriminatory incidents. We recommend study abroad programs adopt certain strategies to assist American students. These recommendations are the following:

  1. Pre-departure Sessions- Incorporate into pre-departure sessions current information concerning racism/discrimination issues in the students' country of choice. Prepare students for realistic situations so that they are aware of what they could possibly face.
  2. Role Models- Role models are necessary! Students of color particularly need to see examples of professionals like themselves involved in their study abroad programs. Programs should seek to have a diverse faculty and have professionals of multicultural backgrounds contribute in some way to the program.
  3. Workshops/seminars- Workshops and seminars on issues of racism/discrimination and diversity abroad such as those developed by VOC should be included in study abroad agendas. This demonstrates that the study abroad program is committed to the needs of diverse student populations as well as combating discrimination abroad.

VOC seeks to extend its services beyond Spain to other countries where discrimination is also prevalent. Our workshops are applicable to students studying in many parts of the world. For further inquiries regarding student workshops, European host family seminars, multicultural activities for students, and staff educational development training seminars, please direct inquiries to the following address:

Voices of Change
Attn.: John Ware
Christa Sanders
Calle Colon 13, 2- Izq.
28004 Madrid SPAIN

Email inquiries concerning interest in VOC student workshops, European host family seminars and student multicultural activities services may be sent to the following addresses: and/or Specific inquiries regarding staff educational development training seminars and any other requests should only be addressed to the second email address: The VOC website is temporarily unavailable but under construction.

Christa Sanders is a counselor and co-founder of Voices of Change based in Madrid, Spain. She has counseled both American and international students in the United States and abroad. Ms. Sanders has presented on Theme of racism/discrimination overseas at various, professional conferences. Furthermore, she has acted as a consultant to study abroad programs and has conducted research on the topic of discrimination facing American undergraduates in Europe. She has traveled extensively through four continents, speaks several languages and is also a former study abroad participant (Madrid, Spain, Fall 1991 and Recife, Brazil, summer 1993). She is a graduate of Spelman College and received her Masters degree in Psychological Counseling from Columbia University, Teachers College in 1995.