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Problematizing Paradise

Campus | September 28, 2015

Every year, the tables in the dining halls are littered with posters inviting Tufts students to “experience paradise.” This “paradise” is Talloires, where each summer around 90 students participate in a six-week homestay program at Tufts’ satellite campus in rural France. Students often return from their stay in Talloires saying it was the “best six weeks of their life.” But after my six weeks there, I came to a very different conclusion.

Talloires is indeed beautiful, but often it is only paradise for the White, straight, cisgender, and wealthy. Hidden behind the romantic French meadows and crystalline lake so well-advertised by the European Center is racism, Islamophobia, queerphobia, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and general intolerance towards difference—mostly coming from host families and other locals. What this discrimination creates is two Talloires experiences: one where the majority of students feel safe and welcome and another where, for a small minority, feeling safe is harder to come by.

What is most interesting about this intolerance is the very fact that it is tolerated. Instead of calling this discrimination what it is, the European Center hides it under the false and dangerous guise of “cultural difference.” Queerphobia is excused and often labeled as “traditional European values.” Islamophobia is rarely discussed, with phrases of justification like “it’s different in Europe” thrown around. And attitudes towards racism are frequently responded to with complacency because it is just part of the “immersion experience.”

While part of a homestay certainly involves being pushed out of your comfort zone, there is a difference between the temporary discomfort felt when there are snails on the dinner table and the lasting anxiety when host families are actively bigoted towards people with your identities. While it is impossible to find a group of perfect host families—all culturally and racially sensitiveit is important that when students go through difficult situations, they feel supported by the European Center. But often times, this much-needed support is what students in Talloires lack the most.

In the Tufts European Center’s attempt to expose students to “authentic” French culture and in their emphasis on being good “Tufts ambassadors,” many students—particularly students with marginalized identities—are unable to find the “paradise” that dominates the narrative of Talloires. When the Center encourages all students to come to Talloires—a historically White, Catholic, conservative region of rural France—and then does not give them the support they need, it sets them up to have an experience that is far from sublime. Additionally, by forcing the “Tufts ambassador” label on students, constantly emphasizing being “flexible” in order to represent our institution well, the European Center is actually asking students to be complacent in the face of discrimination. This forces one to ask—who has the privilege to love Talloires and what does it mean to be a good ambassador of Tufts?

 

My host dad, a veteran of the program, often said things that made me extremely uncomfortable. Whether he was preaching his racist ideas about Black Americans, making misogynistic comments about women we saw as we walked down the street, or repeatedly calling me—an openly queer student—purposefully degrading names, there were many times when I felt unsafe in his home. And while I am normally outspoken, I felt powerless for two reasons: the first because he was housing and feeding me and the second because I had been told so many times by the European Center director, Gabriella Goldstein, that we were to be flexible and courteous in our homestays and that the culture in Talloires was “different” and “more traditional.”

A huge part of the orientation meetings for Tufts in Talloires stresses how “different” the culture is and that students are in a “conservative Christian region.” Girls are told to watch what they wear in order to “avoid danger” and students are constantly reminded they must represent Tufts well. The Tufts European Center makes a point to emphasize the idea that everyone on the program is a “Tufts ambassador.” But in their push for us to be “gracious guests,” they overlook the fact that this can come at a cost.

In my effort to be a good “Tufts ambassador” I allowed my host dad to do things I would never tolerate anywhere else. Many other students shared this experience. One student described a moment where, while driving, her host brother passed two Muslim women in burqas and screamed out the window, “Halloween is over!” Shocked and disgusted, she wanted to say something but felt like she couldn’t counter the blatant racism. How do you call someone out when you are a guest in their home for over a month? As for the other obvious solution, of informing the European Center, another student told me “It was hard to reach out to [the director and coordinator] without [them] somehow trying to remind you that you were a ‘Tufts ambassador.’”

Brenda Lee (A’15) went to Talloires as a student and returned the next summer as one of the eight or so interns that the Center employs to help carry out day-to-day tasks. “The relationship [Goldstein] wants to maintain is a strong motive for not speaking up,” Lee said, referring to Goldstein’s deference to French families. As a result, “a lot of things were excused,” and host families were allowed to participate again even after being actively discriminatory. Often, when problematic issues arise with host families, the European Center “laugh[s] it off as a cultural difference.”

A great irony lies in the European Center’s insistence that students must silence themselves in order to represent our school well. By being complacent with discrimination and by excusing it as “cultural difference,” are we actually being “Tufts ambassadors?” By tolerating behavior on our satellite campus in Talloires that we would never tolerate on the Medford/Somerville campus, are we actually representing our school—an institution that claims to embody active citizenship and stand up for injustice—well?

 

Eura Myrta is a junior at Tufts who went to Talloires in 2014. In the beginning of her stay, when she went to Goldstein with anxiety regarding her host family situation, she said that Goldstein just “cite[d] all these cultural differences.” Then, later in the summer, when even larger problems occurred—such as worrying that her adult host-brother might try to make an advance on her—she felt like she couldn’t go to the European Center for help.

Myrta believes that the European Center is “largely unequipped” to handle problems “beyond the surface level.” Because she felt so uncomfortable in her host family’s house, Myrta “spent as much time out of the house as possible.” However, this put a huge monetary strain on her because she had to buy her own meals to avoid eating with her host family. Myrta said that whenever she told Goldstein about the issue, Goldstein “systematically pushed it back until she no longer had to worry about it and it didn’t make a difference.”

Myrta believes that because “the usual people that have gone in the past have been rich,” the European Center isn’t able to handle potential issues for students with fewer resources and less monetary flexibility. However, the issues facing these students also intersect with race, sexuality, and gender.

 

When Lee was an intern at the European Center she realized she was one of the first students of color in the internship program’s history. Tufts in Talloires began in the late 70s; this was in 2014.

Lee describes this isolation as quite difficult, not only for her, but also for the students of color in the program. A current student who identifies as a person of color and who studied at Talloires while Lee was interning said that because the only staff member of color was a student intern, he felt like he “couldn’t go to [the staff] if there were things that made [him] uncomfortable.” He said he “had to suppress [his feelings] and make [him]self think [he] was enjoying [Talloires] because all the other White students were having a wonderful time.” Furthermore, as a queer identifying student, he said that while in Talloires he “didn’t even engage with [his] queerness because [he] wasn’t sure what people’s perceptions of the queer community were.” To navigate Talloires, he “acted as straight as [he] could.”

Melissa Baptista, a sophomore, also said being a student of color shaped her experience in Talloires. Baptista was a McJannet Scholar—a recipient of an annual scholarship that funds multiple Tufts students to go to Talloires—and said she felt like the European Center paraded around students of color to show diversity. Each year a group of donors comes to meet the McJannet Scholars. Well into this event, when she and some other students of color were leaving, Baptista said, “the staff stopped us and made sure we stayed…[but] didn’t stop the White kids from leaving.” She said it was clear that the Center “wanted to showcase that the program is diverse” and ensure the donors that they were “helping these marginalized groups experience life abroad.”

 

I, too, had experiences in which I struggled to get answers and solutions from Goldstein. In the very writing of this article, Goldstein was largely unresponsive to my emails. Finally, when I called her in France, she asked me to send her questions that she would then respond to. I emailed her five specific questions about my own experience, including whether my host dad would be allowed to participate in the program again, and how she more generally deals with discriminatory host families. She responded with an answer that sounded like it was written by a PR company, littered with phrases like “commitment to treating all members of our community with respect” and “the complexity of the world in which we live.” She gave me no specific answers. When I asked her again for responses to my questions, she suggested I speak directly to my host dad to work out my issues with him—ignoring the larger programmatic problems I was trying to address and revealing a lack of sensitivity. David Baum, Goldstein’s associate, eventually stopped replying to my emails and never answered my questions.

 

My own experience in Talloires was not solely negative. I have fond memories of swimming in the lake after class, going on day hikes run by the European Center, and having picnics on the beach. However, the more time I spent there, the more I realized the underlying issues that affect so many students’ experiences. These are problems that shouldn’t exist—and ones that have solutions.

Historically, Talloires has catered to a certain group of people—White, wealthy, straight, cisgender students—and has yet to adapt to the program’s growing diversity. As more students of color, queer students, and students on scholarship attend the program, it needs to provide more tailored support for them. A primarily White and straight staff is not acceptable. An unwillingness to accommodate socioeconomically disadvantaged students is not acceptable. Excusing outward discrimination from host families, and then allowing them to host again, is not acceptable. These qualities do not represent what Tufts ostensibly stands for and we as students should not stand for it.

While Goldstein claims that the European Center takes student concerns “seriously and act[s] quickly to work to resolve the situation,” too often this is only for a certain type of student. Goldstein told me it “is important for the programs at the European Center to grow and evolve,” and I agree. But I would add something else. It is crucial for the programs at the European Center to grow and evolve. It is crucial they adapt to the new demographics of the program. And it is time for the European Center staff to become good “Tufts ambassadors.”