A chance conversation with a Senegalese saxophone player on the streets of Madrid opened a window of understanding for Idia Irele ‘16, whose interest in the problems faced by African immigrants in Spain led to her being named the Anita Volz Wien ’62 Global Scholar for 2014–15. The Wien Global Scholars Fund is a $15,000 merit-based award to encourage Smith students to study abroad for a full year in non–English-speaking countries in combination with an internship. Irele is spending her junior year studying at the Autonomous University of Madrid and interning at an immigrant services group. Here, in excerpts from her Wien Global Scholars application essay and an interview with the Quarterly, Irele talks about the cause she came to embrace.
The saxophone player: “The one-euro coin I decided to place in his case affected his life in a much greater way than it would ever affect mine. When he took a break to thank me, we ended up chatting. I am forever thankful for that conversation because it gave me a glimpse of a grave problem faced by people like him all over Spain.”
The root of the problem: “The saxophone player explained to me that Spain’s financial crisis was especially hard for people like him because no Spaniard would hire a poor immigrant over another Spaniard during such a dire time of need. Performing in the streets was his only option.”
Poverty and immigration: “As a child of immigrants myself [Irele’s parents immigrated to the United States from Nigeria], the conversation I had with this musician really resonated with me. I decided to do some research on manteros [street vendors] and street performers in Spain and found that this musician’s experience reflected the common intersection of poverty and immigration all over the world. After discovering this, I decided that when I next returned to Spain, I would work at a nonprofit that works to change the situation of immigrants in poverty.”
Her year in Madrid: “As a Spanish and government double major, I am interested not only in improving my language skills and furthering my understanding of Spanish culture but also in learning how to navigate its governmental system to make positive change. I feel that working with organizations that advocate for immigrants in Spain would be the perfect avenue for me to make this change.”
For the love of Spain: “Without getting involved in this way, I would see my year-abroad experience as incomplete. I have fallen in love with Spain and its cultures, and eventually I plan to move to Madrid and make a mark on the city that has made such a profound mark on me. I hope my experience this year will be just the beginning of my journey.”
This story appears in the Fall ’14 Quarterly