How An Executive Order Changed A Butler Study-Abroad Group’s Travel Plans

Originally planning to visit Morocco as part of the university’s Global Adventures in the Liberal Arts program, students and professors scrambled to adjust their itinerary amid the uncertainty and turmoil surrounding President Trump’s travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries.
A group of students and professors from Indianapolis recently sat in an overseas hostel’s common room eating Moroccan foods like couscous and hummus. They dressed up as best they could, having only the clothes they could carry on a three-month backpacking trip. Their hosts shared stories in broken English and thick accents.
It felt like Morocco. But it wasn’t.
President Donald Trump’s January 27 executive order restricting travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries had changed the Butler University group’s itinerary. Organized by the school’s Global Adventures in the Liberal Arts program, the trip was supposed to include a stop in Morocco. Instead, the travelers had to make do with an impromptu evening of Moroccan cuisine and culture shared by some gracious hosts living in Spain, where the group remained after a difficult decision by university officials and the partner organization that planned the excursion. Although Morocco wasn’t included in the executive order, they determined that the uncertainty and turmoil surrounding the travel ban and the Trump Administration’s foreign policy made venturing to a Muslim-majority nation in North Africa too risky.
“The university’s first concern was the well-being of students,” says Margaret Brabant, Butler’s political-science department chair. “Because of the executive order, all the predicative factors they use were changed. Butler took a more prudent and conservative approach in this area. As the faculty lead on the trip, I wasn’t going to say no. We’re all here for the students, and their safety is priority.”
The study-abroad program, commonly called GALA, takes Butler students to several cities for a few weeks at a time and teaches core classes centered on the location. This particular group was learning about Spanish art and architecture to fulfill a fine arts credit while traveling to such cities as Seville, Segovia, and Cordoba. In Morocco, they were going to study Islam’s impact in the region and do service work.
Butler study-abroad director Jill McKinney says the program has canceled trips in the past due to disease outbreaks or international government challenges; the planned trip to Spain and Morocco originally included a stint in Turkey, but that destination was removed more than a year ago after the failed coup there placed it on the U.S. State Department’s Travel Warning list. But destinations had never previously changed “because the United States government provoked, offended, and unnecessarily vilified a religious group,” says McKinney.
Brabant, her other faculty lead Donald Braid, and McKinney discussed how they should react to the executive order via Skype, before Brabant and Braid sat down with students to break the news on February 1.
“I’ll never forget it,” Brabant says. “They needed to hear it in person, because it needed to be compassionate and nuanced. We had just been studying what happened when rulers were intolerant of religion, and the students needed to know they were safe.”
The students were disappointed not to travel to what they anticipated would be a unique and exciting location.
“I was barely there, just soaking in that our plans shifted,” sophomore Murjanatu Mutuwa says. “I knew for how heartbroken I was to miss a small yet exciting experience, there were hundreds of students impacted under the same ban who cannot reenter the U.S. to finish their education.”
Meanwhile, Braid and Brabant rearranged travel plans, found a place to stay, and altered the curriculum.
“It was a bit of a scramble,” Braid says. “Sometimes on a trip where you go so many places, you can’t see everything. The hostel owner’s hospitality to host a dinner for us allowed us to slip below the tourist level and interact with other human beings in a cultural exchange, not just see things.”
McKinney says Butler remains committed to continuing study-abroad programs all over the world, including countries with large Muslim populations.
“This misguided travel ban only shows that we need more exposure to diverse people, religions, languages, and ways of life, so that the unfamiliar becomes less feared,” McKinney says. “We at Butler know Morocco only as a place of beauty, with incredible hospitality and an abundance of human warmth.”
Brabant says despite the circumstances, the students will walk away with valuable lessons and life experiences.
“They see through our 15th-century readings and our current political climate that tyrants want us to hate each other,” she says. “They want our neighbors to be our enemy. If we stop loving and forgiving, we’re done for. I hope my students and others who want to go abroad understand that basic humanity unites us. Even if we don’t look alike or pray to the same god, I challenge them to look past that and see themselves in the other person.”
With more than two months of travel ahead, the group’s journey is far from over.
“Maybe we’ll do a reunion with all the students in Morocco one day,” Braid says. “Wouldn’t that be nice?”